Consumers looking for milk from grass-fed cows can’t rely on the USDA’s organic label.

As this Chicago Tribune article shows, the department has been allowing feedlot-style mega-dairies to claim organic status — despite a recommendation from the National Organic Standards Board that it close existing loopholes.

Access to pasture lies at the heart of any meaningful definition of organic farm-animal stewardship. Grass-fed cows produce a healthier product, they’re easier on the environment, and they’re not forced to live miserable lives completely enslaved by the mechanized milker.With organic milk sales booming and demand unable to keep up with supply, it’s no wonder that large confinement-style dairy farmers are rushing in for a piece of the action, or that dairy giant Dean Foods, through its Horizon Organic subsidiary, buys the product and passes it on to consumers.

Nor should anyone be surprised that the USDA, infiltrated by industrial-ag interests, cheers them on.

On its website, Horizon features this list of requirements for prospective suppliers.

Our basic requirements for milk and feed are:
  1. The product must be certified as organic by an independent, approved, third party certification agency. This certification must be renewed annually.
  2. The milk must be produced without the use of antibiotics or added growth hormones.
  3. Heifers and cows must be fed certified organic feed.
  4. You must meet Horizon Organic Dairy’s strict quality standards as well as having Grade A, IMS-approved milk with a good regulatory history.
  5. Your milk volume and location must be reasonable for hauling.

Note the lack of any pasture requirement. Number five is telling, too. For Horizon, volume, not quality, rules.

The best way to follow the organic-dairy story is to check in periodically with the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based group that has been campaigning vigorously against what it calls “large industrial dairy farms producing ‘organic’ milk.”