Sen. Patrick Leahy visiting Stony Pond Farm in Fairfield in August
Federal dairy regulators said Monday that they would try again to close a loophole that organic farmers say is big enough to drive a herd of cows through.
The announcement by the U.S. Department of Agriculture comes after Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) vowed last month to tighten rules meant to ensure the integrity of the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act he helped author.
Leahy said in August that industrial-scale dairies were exploiting a loophole that allowed them to rotate conventionally raised calves into their organic herds in perpetuity.
“Factory-scale farms want a piece of the action. They want to cut corners. They want to erode the true intent of organic farming,” Leahy said during a visit to a Fairfield dairy.
Program rules that exist allow dairy operators to transition conventional herds to organic milk production just once. After that, most states — including Vermont — interpret the rules as not allowing conventional cows to supplement organic herds.
But some certifying organizations have allowed large producers in states such as Texas and Idaho to raise calves with less expensive conventional feed and other conventional practices and then, after a period, transition them to organic milk production.
Some industry groups view the practice not only as unfair and misleading to consumers but as contributing to the influx of less expensive organic milk. That drives down prices and exacerbates the financial challenges small family organic dairies face.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2015 proposed closing the loophole in what is called the "origin of livestock" rule, but it was never adopted. The decision Monday reopens a 60-day public comment period.
The department said it would consider the economic impacts of limiting producers to a single transition to organic, as well as procedures certifying agents should follow for determining eligibility.