cows in field

Grassfed Dairy Standard to be launched February 8th, 2017

The American Grassfed Association

The American Grassfed Association’s (AGA) Board of Directors has given final approval to the new AGA Grassfed Dairy Standard. More than a year in development, the standard is the result of the work of a diverse group of stakeholders, including representatives from AGA, Organic Valley, Maple Hill Creamery, Traders Point Farm Organics, Trickling Springs Creamery, Cabriejo Creamery, Pennsylvania Certified Organic and NOFA New York. Independent dairy consultants Dr. Meg Cattell, Dr. Arden Nelson and Dr. Silvia Abel-Caine contributed their expertise.

While AGA has offered a Grassfed meat certification program in the United States since 2009, the rapid growth of the Grassfed dairy market and lack of government oversight on labeling claims has highlighted the need for a dairy-specific standard.

The working group collaborated using a three-pronged approach to create the science-based, marketing claim:

  • To ensure the healthy and humane treatment of dairy animals.
  • To meet consumer expectations about grassfed dairy products.
  • To be economically feasible for small and medium-size dairy farmers.

The working group is currently developing a timeline and procedure for implementation of the new standard, with an anticipated roll-out at AGA’s annual producer conference February 8-9, 2017 at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, NY.

CROPP has played a leading role in developing these standards, hiring Mark Lipson, former USDA organic policy advisor and current research associate at the Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems, University of California, Santa Cruz, as a consultant to move the process forward. CROPP has also recently expanded its pool of organic and Grassfed producers. They announced in December that they have created a new route with twelve 100 percent Grassfed dairies in the Mid-Atlantic to increase production of its Organic Valley Grassmilk branded milk products. The production expansion makes CROPP the largest producer of organic, 100 percent grass-fed dairy in the country.

The twelve new Organic Valley Grassmilk dairy farmers are located in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania and are connected with the existing milk route between the states from Myerstown, PA., to Dayton, Va. With Organic Valley’s regional model, milk is produced, bottled and distributed right in the region where it is farmed to ensure fewer miles from farm to table and to support local economies. It is thought that CROPP’s recently formed joint venture with Dean will take full advantage of the Dean’s under-utilized HTST processing plants to increase the local packaging of the Grassfed milk brand across the country, especially in the East, where there is both supply and expanding consumer demand.

In 2016 CROPP created a new Northeast Grassmilk route leading from New York to Pennsylvania. With the recent additions, the farmer-owned cooperative now has a total of 121 Grassmilk dairies across the country, in California, Wisconsin, Ohio, Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland. More Grassmilk dairy farmers are expected to join the CROPP cooperative in 2017 to support additional growth and new product development.

The new standard is similar to organic certification in that it addresses a wide variety of practices but without the rigorous inspection, certification process and enforcement that organically certified has. In fact, in some cases the door is wide open for abuse; for example animals can be identified by batch rather than individually and re-admittance to the program can be interpreted too broadly, “The producer files a request for a reprieve from conditions specified in 1, 2, and 3 if terminated Grassfed certification is due to extenuating circumstances.” The attempt to directly address sustainability by requiring a “written pasture management and grazing plan that supports biological diversity, natural resources, and soil fertility,” is clearly a step in the right direction but is too vague to be consistently applied by the multiple different auditors.

Producers do not have to be certified organic in order to receive the AGA Grassfed dairy certification. George Siemon is quoted in a Civil Eats article that “it’s a natural progression for an organic dairy farmer” and that almost all Grassfed dairy farms that have joined CROPP’s network were operating as organic dairy farms before. As we have learned from organic certification, when a label is not widely used, then integrity can be maintained. Grassfed is breaking out of the niche market and is challenging organically certified in some East coast markets. There has been a move to encourage the Federal government to use these standards to upgrade their existing protocols but there is little hope that it will happen because regulation would have to include both USDA and FDA. To quote George Siemon again; “We all know that that’s a very slow and difficult process. We’d like to think this [standard] goes a long way to build integrity in the meantime.” NOFA New York and PCO include the Grassfed claim with organic certification, which is the ideal combination, but many other proponents of the program do not require that. George Siemon is again quoted as relying on retailers to maintain the integrity of the new program, “Grassfed dairy is an innovative item at this time, and retailers … have a stake in not letting it be ruined by false claims.” AGA’s communications director Marilyn Noble is quoted in the same Civil Eats article; “We’ve got big players in the organic dairy area who are promoting this,” Noble said. “So when consumers start seeing that certification, it’s going to have a lot more impact because it’s on recognized products.” Unfortunately, retailers and brand owners have an economic stake in ensuring a consistent supply at a profitable price that gives them a good margin. Looking to retailers and brand owners to police the standard is definitely ignoring the realities of commerce, and in the interim will undermine the demand for organically certified dairy.