To most people, the word “organic” conjures up images of green pastures, open fields, and animals untarnished by their environment, pesticides, or growth hormones.
Until recently, those images were only half true, at least in regards to milk. While the USDA did require any milk labeled “organic” to come from cows that only consumed pesticide-free feed and were not injected with antibiotics or growth hormones, the law did not specify under what conditions the cows must be raised.
On the blog Simple, Good, and Tasty, Angelique Chao discusses how the ambiguous “access to pasture” clause from the original law did not necessarily jibe with what consumers expected of something touted as organic:
What did “access to pasture” really mean? Did it mean the cows had to be on pasture all the time or only sometimes? Did they have to graze the pasture or just mill around on it? And what was pasture, anyway? Any outdoor space, a grassy lawn, Astroturf, or what?
It turns out a lot of cows whose milk was being marketed as organic were being raised on feedlots: filthy, cramped areas of land with little to no grass to munch on. Chao observes that “this image of cows stacked in close confinement on dirt or mud lots didn’t exactly square with the consumer’s vision of the natural, peaceful life of the organic cow.”
Now, according to the USDA amendment which goes into full effect in June 2011, cows must get at least 30 percent of their food from pasture, which means no barren feed lots, and farmers must treat said pasture as they would any other crop. The cows must also graze at least 120 days per year.