updated 2/12/2010 6:08:27 PM ET 2010-02-12T23:08:27

What makes milk or meat organic? After a drawn-out debate, the Agriculture Department has significantly narrowed the definition to livestock that spend a third of the year grazing on pasture.

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New rules announced Friday say organic milk and meat must come from livestock grazing on pasture for at least four months of the year, and that 30 percent of their feed must come from grazing. The old rules said only that animals must have “access to pasture.”

It took years to craft the new regulations, which offer clarity for ranchers, food companies and consumers, who have forked over billions of dollars for organic food without a crystalline standard for livestock.

Once a niche market, the organic industry has grown exponentially in the last 20 years as consumers following healthy eating trends sought out organic products, which are grown without pesticides, hormones, antibiotics or biotechnology. It had grown to a $24 billion market in 2008, according to the most recent figures from the Organic Trade Association, and its share of food sales was 3.5 percent and growing.

The industry’s rapid expansion, and the ensuing competition between small- and large-scale farmers and ranchers, has put a premium on defining what it means to be organic. To that end, Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said the pasture rules are the first step in sharpening that definition.

“This is an industry that’s come to Capitol Hill and wants tough, strict regulations, because they know that’s what consumers want,” Merrigan said on a conference call with reporters. “They want clear, consistent, tough enforceable rules.”

The new rules take effect in June, and farmers and ranchers will have one year to comply. The rules also say 30 percent of animals’ feed must come from grazing and that ranchers must have a plan to protect soil and water quality.

Industry groups and consumer watchdogs praised the rules as an important first step.

“Consumers increasingly are placing high value on organic principles that safeguard animal welfare and avoid confinement,” said Christine Bushway, executive director of the Organic Trade Association.

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