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USDA Trying to Put Loophole in Organic Dairy Rules Out to Pasture

"These were allegations, not violations of organic standards," said Sonja Tuitele, spokeswoman for Aurora. "The activists are opposed to scale and the campaign they have waged is not necessarily based on fact."

The dairy also is fighting a class-action lawsuit filed last fall. The complaint alleges that consumers were defrauded, even though the milk carried an organic seal of approval issued by USDA.

Aurora said it now publishes data on how many acres of pasture it owns and how long cows graze on that pasture. It also has added organic pasture to its farms, Tuitele said.

The agency is taking comments on the proposal until Dec. 23. A preliminary proposal on stricter grazing requirements in 2006 attracted about 250 comments from consumers, trade groups, retailers and producers.

Though the proposal addresses the "access-to-pasture" problem, some organic farmers say they worry that new issues may slow progress on the rule. For the first time, the agency says it is considering adding bees and aquatic species as organic "livestock." And it includes provisions about beef cattle and whether non-organic heifers can continue to be used as replacements in a herd.

"There is some fear that big industry packed the rule to slow it down," said Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association in Finland, Minn. "It was not done correctly. It makes you really suspicious since it has taken them years and years to close these loopholes."

Barbara Robinson, who oversees the National Organic Program at USDA, said the proposal is expansive because the agency wanted to lay out as many options as possible for the organic industry.

"We have no hidden agenda," she said, adding that she hopes a final rule will be published in the spring. "It's their rule, their industry and their marketing claim."

Cindy Skrzycki is a regulatory columnist with Bloomberg News. She can be reached

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