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What’s in the Beef?

On an unseasonably hot day in early June, Carole Price went shopping at Whole Foods in Austin, Texas, the flagship store. On this day, the lean 51-year-old unloaded half-and-half, sharp cheddar cheese, and yogurt, among assorted leafy vegetables and other goods from her cart. Each dairy product that rode the conveyor belt toward the beeping scanner was marked by the contrasting half-moons of the “USDA organic” label.

Carole Price always buys organic dairy. “I don’t want the antibiotics that they put in regular milk,” she says. “And I prefer to support a smaller-area industry than a big mega-farm.”

Her routine is becoming a familiar sight. More and more Americans are selecting organics to fill their cabinets and bellies. Last year, Americans spent nearly $25 billion on organic food—as much as the gross domestic product of the entire nation of Estonia. Our organic food spending has quadrupled in the 10 years since the word “organic” took on a legal meaning, and a lagging economy didn’t slow it down. In 2009, organic food sales grew by 5.1 percent, as compared with only 1.6 percent of overall food sales. Of all American consumers, three-quarters purchase organic food and beverages; over a third of them are over 45, according to a report about organic food by the Hartman Group. And organic food spending is projected to keep on growing.

But now, many meat and dairy producers must change the way they do business to earn the organic label. In February, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) finalized a new set of rules, which took effect in June. Producers seeking organic certification must prove that their ruminant animals, like cows, spend at least 120 days per year, or the duration of the grass-growing season, grazing on pasture. Moreover, grass must account for at least 30 percent of their food. Producers that were already certified organic before the rules’ release in February have an additional year to comply.

Why the change? The public perception of what organic means and the reality aren't necessarily the same. To most of us, the word “organic” conjures images of an idealized style of agriculture. The leaping cartoon cow on a half-gallon carton of organic milk evokes images of cattle grazing happily in green pastures, chewing on grass as nature intended.

But that isn’t necessarily what organic has meant in the United States. And to understand the new definition, you have to understand the old.

That’s not what I thought “organic” meant!

Since 2000, any food labeled organic must be produced according to a set of rules called the National Organic Program. These standards ensure, for example, that organic blueberries haven’t been treated with any of the chemicals on a long list the USDA maintains. They also specify that organic livestock never be treated with hormones or antibiotics or eat any feed that wasn’t itself organic, too.

But there’s nothing in the USDA standards that says organic lettuce can’t be grown by industrial-scale producers in giant greenhouses. (Only small farmers—those who sell $5,000 or less worth of agricultural products a year—are permitted to label food “organic” without certification under the national law.) The rules also haven’t prevented organic livestock from living in dusty, grassless pens as long as they have access to pasture.

“That meant the ruminants like dairy cows should be outdoors grazing,” says Will Fantle, a cofounder of the Cornucopia Institute, a nonprofit group focusing on organics. But a “minority of producers,” he says, didn’t see it this way, and USDA enforcement was sporadic and uneven.

But that minority of producers has included some of the nation’s largest ones—organic farms that started to look a lot like conventional, industrialized operations. Accessible pasture might have been too small for a herd of dairy cows, or it could even have been grassless, since the standards didn’t specify that “pasture” necessarily had to have grass at all, let alone sufficient grass to feed the number of cows that grazed on it.

In practice, an organic dairy cow could be kept in a dry feedlot eating grain, as long as the grain was organic. In his bestselling 2006 book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan described Horizon Organic, then and still the country’s top producer of organic milk—they also produce yogurt, cheese, cream, cottage cheese and butter—as a place where dairy cows milled around a grassless, fenced lot on the company’s southern Idaho farm.

Similar conditions existed at Aurora Organic Dairy, a large producer of organic milk for private store brands that include Wal-Mart, Safeway, Target and Costco. (The company says it is contractually prohibited from officially confirming which products are theirs.) “Because of their management strategy, they were able to produce a product that was less expensive to make,” says Fantle. According to that strategy, he says, cows didn’t graze. That translated into cheaper production because the company could raise far more cows on its acreage in Texas and Colorado by simply bringing them grain.

Public perception vs. reality

“If you look at the packaging on some of these products,” says Fantle, “it’s rather ridiculous. You’ve got on the milk carton a little farm with a stream, a red barn, a couple of cows standing out on grass. That’s just not the reality of how that milk was produced.”

The Cornucopia Institute filed complaints with the USDA against both Horizon and Aurora for providing their organic dairy herds with insufficient pasture, among other issues. Both companies say that their operations meet the new pasture requirements, though Cornucopia’s Fantle is skeptical, given the ratio of cows to land, and the way that land is managed in both cases. A third large dairy that Cornucopia complained about—Vander Eyk Jr. Dairy in Pixley, Calif.—lost its organic certification. Three other large dairies about which Cornucopia has filed complaints that specifically cite inadequate pasture are still in operation.

The disconnect between what consumers imagine when they think “organic” and what the rules stipulate had long frustrated the organic watchdog community as well as other organic farmers who’ve been pasturing all along, yet competing with bigger farms who don’t and sell their products at lower cost.

“Consumers believe that the animals are outdoors on pasture,” says Liana Hoodes, director of the National Organic Coalition. “That’s what they buy when they buy organic.” She emphasizes that the majority of producers were fulfilling that vision. But a few were developing “larger confinement operations,” she says. “Those few were not keeping with the consumers’ perception of what they were buying."

As a consumer, Carole Price is especially savvy. Having read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, she knows that organic beef cows might eat organic corn, not grass. And she knows that grass-fed beef has health benefits over corn-fed beef. She buys only beef that is labeled both “organic” and “grass-fed.” But even Price didn’t realize that the same corn-versus-grass concern applied to dairy products as well. She bought organic dairy thinking that it came from pastured cows.

Down on the farm

To be fair, many beef and dairy producers still pasture their cows on actual grass. The new rules will, however, be felt more acutely by larger dairies and ranches. The reality is that the more cattle you have, the more acreage of pasture you need to fulfill the new requirement.

Dan Bansen, an Organic Valley farmer in Dayton, Ore., milks some 800 cows on his farm. In order to meet the requirement that 30 percent of his animals’ food come from grass, he needed more land than the 300 acres he used to graze them on. “We’re very fortunate,” he says. He was able to arrange a land trade with a neighbor to expand his acreage to 550—enough to pasture his cattle at a suitable density of three cows per acre, and still have ample fields left over for growing feed for the winter season, when weather will dictate that the cows come inside. “The transition should be very easy,” he says. He wonders, though, how even bigger organic dairies will fare.

If large producers are unable to maintain their organic certification under the new pasture rules, supplies of organic dairy, as well as beef, could dwindle—just as demand is rising. Horizon and Aurora say that they aren’t worried about the new rules, and that their production isn’t projected to change. For its part, Organic Valley has budgeted for a 2 percent decrease in production, says CEO George Siemon, who helped write the original organic standards, as well as the new set of rules.

But will prices for organic meats and dairy soar higher? At Whole Foods in Austin, the meat case displays an arrangement of fresh cuts of beef labeled variously as conventional, local, grass-fed and organic. The most expensive, the organic ground beef, costs around $7.99 per pound, as opposed to $4.99 for the least expensive, conventionally produced version. It’s impossible to foretell how these price tags will read in the future. But price is no object for Carole Price. She’ll always buy organic, she says. “Always. No matter what it costs.”

What benefits do meat and dairy products from grazed cattle offer?

Beth Goulart lives in Austin, Texas.

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