After much debate, the federal government is moving to bring clearer and more stringent regulation for organic agriculture, the fastest growing sector in the food system.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced a new rule yesterday that will require  meat and dairy bearing the USDA Organic Seal come exclusively from livestock that have spent a significant portion of their lives grazing on pasture.

“Clear and enforceable standards are essential to the health and success of the market for organic agriculture,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a statement yesterday. “The final rule published today will give consumers confidence that organic milk or cheese comes from cows raised on pasture, and organic family farmers the assurance that there is one, consistent pasture standard that applies to dairy products.”

The new rule, which will take effect in mid-June, requires livestock spend 120 days a year in pastures, and obtain at least 30 percent of their dry matter intake from grazing during that time, to qualify for organic certification.

Current organic regulations are far less specific, only requiring that livestock have “access pasture.”

Under the new rule, producers must also implement a pasture management plan to feed the animals and protect soil and water quality.

The rule provides an exemption on the grazing requirement during the finishing phase, which is not exceed 120 days. During that time, livestock must “have access to pasture.”

According to the USDA, the majority of organic dairy and ruminant livestock producers already raise their animals on pasture during the grazing season, but the new rule provides certainty to consumers that all producers are being held to the same standards.

The final rule is available on the USDA website.

The agency is still accepting comments on finishing phase exemption, comments can be submitted until April 19, 2010.