The happy cow on the label of Horizon organic milk is like a stop sign for consumers: Your quest for healthy milk ends here. The back of the carton assures us that Horizon milk is from certified organic farms, where clean-living cows "make milk the natural way, with access to plenty of fresh air, clean water and exercise."

At a Horizon dairy farm in central Idaho, the cows don't look that happy. Four thousand cows live in a stark landscape of sagebrush fields, long silver barns and open-air sheds. Jammed in crowded pens atop the hardpan of the Idaho desert, the cows are fed a diet of alfalfa, hay, grains and soy, all certified organic. Only occasionally do they eat fresh grass.

This isn’t the pastoral image of cows grazing on a hillside that most consumers link with an organic label, but it’s not against the law. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s vague organic standards state only that dairy cows called organic must have "access to pasture." These cows in Idaho eat grass for a few hours a day during the summer, and that makes them, legally organic cows.

To the innovative farmers who first pushed organic farming over 20 years ago, the label was supposed to mean more than just pesticide and hormone-free milk. "Organic" was meant to promise the healthiest possible milk for the consumer and the environment.

"People are paying more for organic products because they think the farmers are doing it right, that they're treating animals humanely and that the quality of the product is different," says Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association, a network of 600,000 buyers of organic food. "Intensive confinement of animals is a no-no," she adds. "This is Grade B organics."

There is nothing in Horizon milk that would hurt anyone. Even so, recent studies suggest that grass-fed cows produce milk that is higher in Vitamin A and vitamin E, and has five times more cancer-fighting properties.

Furthermore, these large "confinement" dairies (another is Aurora Organic Dairy just outside Denver) are a far cry from sustainable agriculture. On smaller farms, the grass filters cow manure. On large-scale operations, the thousands of pounds of manure are placed in concrete lagoons, where the methane gas emitted diminishes air quality.

And what happens when cows get fed grain? Critics say when the majority of a cow’s diet comes from grain and other readily fermentable carbohydrates, the rumen, (first of a cow’s four stomachs,) becomes acidic, and the animals can become sick and die prematurely. There is no evidence of this happening at dairies like Horizon. Even so, though many dairy cows can live to be 13, Horizon sells its cows to the butcher after six years, according to company spokespeople.

Yet responsibility for defining what makes a cow organic rests with the USDA, an agency not eager to exert control. The USDA doesn't go out to every farm and give it a stamp of approval. Rather, such grunt work is done by a hodgepodge of 97 state agricultural agencies, nonprofit groups and for-profit companies.

While there are hefty federal penalties for illegally stamping a dairy organic, the system is fraught with potential conflict of interest. The pell-mell certification process lacks rigorous and transparent oversight, and it's too easy for certifiers to bend the rules, allowing dairies to stay in business and keep the certifiers in the black as well.

The National Organic Standards Board, a federally created advisory board, has been working to strengthen both the regulations and oversight of the certification process. But since a final organic rule was released in December 2000, the USDA hasn't implemented any of the organic standards board's more than 50 policy recommendations. It’s required by law, yet the agency has yet to create a peer-review panel to oversee the accreditation process. USDA has also failed to create a program manual for certifiers that specifies its rules and regulations.

If the USDA isn’t going to guard the gate, then consumers who care about the meaning of the organic label need to start paying attention; they need to learn the story behind the fancy packaging.

Here’s some tips: Buy local when you can, talk to your farmer, or join Cummins and other groups like the Cornucopia Institute that are fighting to keep the meaning of organic intact. There’s nothing really wrong with big business getting into the business of organic food, but it’s important for us to know that when a food like milk is stamped "organic," the word means what it says.

Rebecca Clarren is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes about agricultural issues in Portland, Oregon.