Milk producers draft standards for certified grassfed dairy label

A national group of largely organic milk producers has reached consensus on a draft proposal for a new 100 percent grassfed dairy label, hoping to set standards for the term before it gets diluted. The group, which was convened by the American Grassfed Association (AGA) and includes Organic Valley, Pennsylvania Certified Organic, New York’s Maple Hill Creamery, Pennsylvania-based Trickling Springs Creamery, Traders Point Farm Organics and Northwest Organic Farming Association-New York, released draft standards for internal review.

The market for grassfed products—both meat and dairy— has grown incredibly fast, with Whole Foods calling grassfed one of the top 10 food trends for 2016. But exactly what makes a food grassfed has been open to interpretation. “We were starting to see a lot of labels for grassfed that didn’t mean anything,” says George Siemon, CEO of Organic Valley, about the inspiration to create a unified label. “Some farmers go to tremendous lengths to [produce grassfed milk], but the marketplace is polluted” with false claims.

Organic Valley began selling 100 percent grassfed dairy products under its “Grassmilk” line in 2012, and Maple Hill Creamery is already certified 100 percent grassfed under Pennsylvania Certified Organic’s label. Trickling Springs Creamery has a number of grassfed producers. But in collaborating on a common set of standards, the working group hopes to protect “grassfed” from being misused. Under the proposed label, the term would apply only to ruminants raised on 100 percent grass and forage-based feed, without any grain supplementation.

“The goal is to have 100 percent grassfed be a standard with integrity,” says Mark Lipson, an organic farmer and former organic and sustainable agriculture advisor to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. Lipson was invited to facilitate the grassfed dairy label discussions at the group’s first meeting in Denver, this January. “Looming over all our conversations is the possibility that the standard could become meaningless,” he says. “A cow could eat grass just once and be called grassfed.”

While the standards for grassfed meat began as a USDA initiative, the grassfed dairy standards have been entirely industry-driven. AGA’s executive director Carrie Balkcom believes this approach will ultimately make certification more financially feasible for small farms. “The government does one size fits all. And when you put the same regulations on small farms as mega dairies, it doesn’t work,” she says.

But because the standards aren’t codified in federal law, the success of the grassfed label will depend on whether large-scale retailers and consumer watchdog groups—what Lipson calls the “market gatekeepers”— trust it. “This won’t succeed unless consumers and their gatekeepers think this label is meaningful, fair and enforced,” he says.

As for producers, Siemon expects that roughly 20 percent of Organic Valley’s 1,800 family farmers will eventually be grassfed certified. It’s difficult to guess how many dairy farmers nationwide might ultimately take up grassfed production, in part because the USDA ag census doesn’t collect information on grassfed production. Certain regions, like the Southeast, are better suited to the practice than others, but by relying on forage-feed part of the year, producers in many regions of the United States could theoretically support grassfed herds.

In some cases, farmers will have to convert their herds to breeds that better metabolize a grass/forage-based diet. Yet, the agricultural science on what makes for a healthy grassfed animal is scant. “We’ve lost a lot of farmer knowledge in the last 50 years,” says Lipson, adding that the proposed standards call for more research into livestock diet and nutrition. What is known is that grassfed farmers have to devote more attention to the soil fertility and nutrient diversity of their pastures compared to producers who can fall back on corn and soy. But some studies have shown that raising ruminants on grass makes their milk (and meat) richer in omega-3s and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), both of which are vital to long-term human health.

Once the draft proposal is approved, the standard and certification will be managed by AGA. Asked when consumers might start to see the label, Balkcom says that she can’t give an exact date, but “it will be months, not years.” A meeting is scheduled for October at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Tarrytown, N.Y., to introduce producers to the standards and offer trainings.