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Grazing in chemical pesticide-free pasture—the bucolic ideal for all cows whose milk is sold as organic. Photo courtesy of MorgueFile.
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STEPHANIE ZONIS focuses on good foods and the people who produce them. Click here to contact her.

 

 

June 2006

Product Reviews / NutriNibbles

Organic Matter Archive

June 2006: Udder Chaos

To jump down to the product(s) of the month, click here
Click here to read other months’ columns

EDITOR’S NOTE: The people who buy organic milk have trust in the USDA Organic Certified seal, but some organizations believe that trust is often misplaced, in some cases. Horizon Organic, which produces more than 50% of America’s organic dairy products, is owned by corporate giant Dean Foods (2005 sales were $10.5 billion), the nation’s largest producer of fluid milk and dairy products including Borden, Pet, Country Fresh, Meadow Gold, and Organic Cow. As you’ll read in this column, the integrity of some organic standards—e.g. grazing on pasture and animals that have only eaten organic diets—can be lacking in some products that bear the organic seal. According to a study by an independent group, Horizon and others among the largest companies are the biggest transgressors.

My name is Stephanie Zonis, and welcome to Organic Matter for June, 2006.

Udder Chaos: The Complex, Name-Calling, Murkily-Regulated World
of Organic Milk - or - Speak to Me, OTA*, Speak to Me!

 

What’s more complicated than a California tax form and less clear than the Blue Ridge Parkway in a thick fog? If your answer has anything to do with the world of organic milk, you’re absolutely right. This subject is so multi-faceted that I’ll only be able to give the briefest of overviews here, but at least I hope this will leave you with some idea of what’s going on out there, and maybe it will inspire you to do some research of your own.

*Organic Trade Association, a member-supported association of organic manufacturers, which did not return our writer’s calls or e-mails requesting input for this article.

Americans spent thirteen billion dollars (that’s “billion,” with a “b”) on organic foods in 2005, a growth rate of sixteen percent over the previous year’s spending. If you don’t know it, that’s an incredible one-year growth rate, so a lot of companies see vast potential in organic foods, as well they might. The majority of people who buy organic foods begin doing so for their children, in an attempt to avoid hormones or pesticide residues for developing minds and bodies. Most children in American society are urged to drink milk. Because of this, organic milk has become extremely popular, despite the fact that it’s considerably pricier than conventionally-produced milk. In fact, it’s become so popular that grocers often can’t keep it in stock. There are sporadic shortfalls in supply. There aren’t enough dairy cows being raised organically to deal with the demand, but that’s only part of the issue. Other components include an insufficient amount of organically-produced cattle feed for cows being raised organically. Then, of course, there’s the question of whether that organic milk for which you pay a premium price really is organic.

Is All Organic Milk “Organic?”

I have some explaining to do with regard to that last sentence. For years, there have been allegations that some dairies producing “organic” milk are simply cheating consumers. The two companies cited most frequently in these allegations are Horizon and Aurora, the two biggest organic dairy labels in the U.S. (Horizon has a market share of over 50% of organic dairy; Aurora was started by one of Horizon’s founders and sells milk under store brands (“private label”).

  • While the average organic dairy farmer has between 50 and 100 dairy cows, several farms belonging to Horizon and Aurora have some 4,000 cows apiece.
  • While many cows on conventional dairy farms are raised on feedlots in close confinement and fed only from troughs, a relatively cheap and easy method, in theory the USDA requires that organic milk comes from cows that are given access to pasture and derive part of their nutritive requirements from grazing. However, the USDA has refused to enforce their own standards, resulting in an environment that makes it easy for farmers to do pretty much what they want with their “organically-raised” cows.
  • The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), the USDA’s own appointed advisory body on organic standards, recommended an alteration of standards early in 2005, so that the phrase “access to pasture” would be changed to a requirement that organic dairy cows graze on pasture during the growing season, something that could be evaluated in a definite manner. The reason for the proposed alteration in wording? To prevent dairy farmers from using the milk-producing stage of life as a reason for confining their dairy cows in feedlots.

It’s true that the USDA permits farmers to confine their animals “temporarily” due to illness or for certain stages of their lives or production, but again, the instances in which “temporary” confinement is allowed (and the phrase itself) have been poorly-defined. And the standards here are important, because a dairy cow spends about half her life in the milk-producing stage.

What I’m talking about here is agribusiness, dairies raising their cows via methods virtually unchanged from factory farming, then selling the milk to you as “organic.” (Please note that the vast majority of organic dairy farmers are following both the law and the principles of organically managing their dairy herds. It’s merely a small handful of major players against whom I direct any negative comments here.)

Recently, someone decided to do reporting on this that was more extensive. Through their Organic Integrity Project, dedicated to preserving the credibility of organic foods, the Cornucopia Institute, a watchdog group based in the Midwest, issued an organic dairy report and “scorecard” (you can find both here).

Happy Cows
Healthy land and happy cows.

Factory Farm

Factory Farm of a major organic producer. The sign says: No Trespassing. Organic Farm. Protected Area.

Photos courtesy of Cornucopia Institute.

Based on nineteen questions asked of organic dairies, the Cornucopia Institute rates the dairies from five down to zero cows (five cows being “outstanding” and zero being “ethically challenged”). Questions cover subjects such as ownership structure of the farm, organic certification process, pasture available to cattle and pasture exemptions, hormone treatments (if any), and replacement cattle (how many animals were purchased and sent to slaughter over the past two years). I liked the degree of transparency in this report, as Cornucopia was specific about everything they did. Though I’m not a scientist, I thought that the questions were reasonable and produced the type of information I’d want to know if I were asking an individual organic dairy about their practices.

  • The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) applauded the report, as did a number of other groups. But then I saw the report blasted by the Organic Trade Association (OTA). The OTA issued a press release condemning Cornucopia’s survey by stating that it “was not performed using accepted scientific research practices” and that the results therefore “do not portray an accurate picture of today’s organic dairy producers.” 
  • Well, that was disturbing. I understand that, as a trade association, the OTA must represent all of their members, even those portrayed in a less than flattering manner by this scorecard. But supposing their criticism was valid? I needed to better understand their objections. What would the OTA have done differently? Did Cornucopia ask the wrong questions, perhaps?
  • On five successive Mondays beginning in late April of this year, I contacted the OTA a total of five times, three times via e-mail (two of those e-mails went to their Director of Communications, and one to their Senior Writer) and twice by phone. In each case, I told them who I was, for whom I wrote, and why I was contacting them. I specified that I was not affiliated with Cornucopia and had never supported that organization financially, which is quite true. I heard crickets. I never received a reply of any kind.

It might seem a non sequitur if I tell you here that I have a serious dislike of most blogs. This was underscored after I discovered that not all are what they’re purported to be. Instead of an individual’s ramblings about their own thoughts and feelings, some blogs are set up as deliberate agents of sabotage. Unhappily, this is not always immediately apparent when people read them, and so it was that I nearly fell credibility victim to a sabotage blog when doing research for this article. I will not dignify the blog by naming it, but the author of the blog, of whom I’d never heard, accused a co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute of several very serious conflicts of interest. If true, these would damage Cornucopia’s credibility beyond repair, in my mind. Time to ask Cornucopia a thing or two.

  • I called Cornucopia, initially just to ask a few questions in a roundabout way that might help me establish whether that blog was telling the truth. To my surprise, the co-founder at whom the blog had pointed the accusations, Mark Kastel, answered. Mr. Kastel had never heard of me, either, but, unlike the OTA, he was more than happy to answer my questions.
  • In response to the OTA’s claims that the Cornucopia study was carried out in an unscientific manner, Kastel replied that the Institute had never claimed their study was a scientific one. Rather, it was carried out much like a review done in Consumer Reports, where various brands of similar products are compared. Further, the OTA hadn’t even waited until the report was made public before condemning it, which seemed very odd.

Mr. Kastel spoke at some length about the issue of pasture for dairy cows. Unlike some assertions I’ve read which state that there’s no real USDA definition of what “pasture” or access to pasture constitutes, Kastel is adamant that that just isn’t so. He believes that there are three or four different places where “pasture” is defined clearly, and no part of that definition is met by the dumping of hay into a feedlot. The USDA regulations insist that organic dairy cows be managed in a way that promotes natural, instinctive behavior; Kastel says that everyone recognizes the need to pasture their animals except a few of the largest players, who are “deceiving the public, gaming the system”, and squeezing out family farms. In fact, the Cornucopia Institute has filed several lawsuits against the USDA, and one of those deals with this issue. In August of 2005, as a result of the NOSB recommendations (which the USDA overrode) Cornucopia formally asked the USDA to release documents that agency is required to make public, regarding information on with whom they’d been corresponding about dairy cattle and their access to pasture. The agency had twenty days to respond. At the end of that period, they asked for a ten day extension. Even after the extension, however, no answer was forthcoming, despite repeated formal requests.  

And what about the blog’s claims? Half-truths, every one. I was surprised by that, but I shouldn’t have been. I did more research on the group represented by the blog’s author, and it turns out that the blog is, at least in this case, one of those instruments of sabotage I mentioned earlier, a web “diary” written by a man who works for a right-wing think tank financially supported by firms trying to detract from the genuine mission and spirit of organics. Given that I’m just one person trying to do research into a few aspects of organic milk production, I hope this gives you some appreciation of how intricate the world of organics can be and how easy it is to become bogged down in the quagmire of misinformation out there.

Issue #2: Importing Conventional Calves Into Organic Herds

What I’ve discussed so far is just the tip of the organic milk iceberg. Another big topic in organic milk is the subject of heifer calves/young cows. In 2002 and 2003, the NOSB recommended that all animals brought into existing organic herds should be under organic management for no less than the last three months of their mother’s pregnancy. Conventionally-raised calves and young cows, on the other hand, can still be fed animal by-products and feed that contains GMO’s; they can still be given hormones and antibiotics. Under the proposed NOSB standards, calves and young cows fed and treated in this manner would not be able to be included in organic herds; their milk could not be sold as organic. But the USDA simply ignored the NOSB recommendations.

  • Late last year, a rider, pushed through in conference committee, was attached to the 2006 Agricultural Appropriations Bill (the “pushers” in this case were eight senators; I’m sure it’s just coincidence that they’re all Republicans). The rider allows so-called “organic” dairies like Horizon to continue the same practices they’ve been following for years now, in this case, selling off all the calves born on a farm, and bringing in year-old cows that have been fed conventional cattle feed and possibly treated with antibiotics/hormones.
  • It’s a lot cheaper to do this than to raise the cows in an organic way from birth. The year-old cows are then managed organically (at least in theory) and integrated into the “organic” herd; their milk can be sold as organic. The USDA only allowed a 15 day comment period on this proposal, a far shorter one than normal, and that shortened comment period came in the midst of both the spring planting rush and a major trade show involving organics. Under pressure, the comment period was extended by one month, and the new deadline is past the date when this article will be published.

This has become rather more of a dissertation than I’d anticipated, so I hope you’ll forgive me. But I’m sick and tired of seeing companies not doing right by consumers, especially where organics are concerned and consumers are paying more money for those products. And I’ve had it with the USDA turning a blind eye to the often-shoddy practices of agribusiness.

If you’d like to comment on that Agricultural Appropriations Bill rider, head over to the Organic Consumers Association website and click on “Tell the USDA—Prohibit Factory Farm Organics.” Meantime, when I’m thinking about buying organic dairy products, I’ll be turning to the Cornucopia Institute’s report and scorecard for an honest evaluation.

Organic Finds of the Month

In tribute to the Cornucopia Institute’s dairy scorecard, I ask that you patronize one of the companies that received a five (“outstanding”) or four cow (“excellent”) rating. And if you’re able to get some of Animal Farm’s butter, please e-mail me to tell me how you pulled it off! 

From the scorecard:

5-Cow Rating (Outstanding) 4-Cow Rating (Excellent)
Animal Farm VT Organic Choice Nationwide
Evans Farmhouse Creamery NY/NJ Organic Valley (CROPP) Nationwide
Green Hills Harvest IA, KS, MO Wisconsin Organics Midwest Plus
Kimberton Hills PA Cedar Grove Cheese Nationwide
Oak Grove Organics Western IL Helios Nationwide
Organic Pastures Dairy Company CA Amish County Farms Nationwide
Radiance Dairy IA Julie’s (Oregon Ice Cream) Nationwide
Butterworks Farm East Coast Nancy’s (Springfield Creamery) Nationwide
Crystal Ball Farms MN/WI Sibby Farm Midwest
Seven Stars East Coast/Midwest Natural by Nature East Coast
Hails Family Farm East Coast Humboldt Creamery Nationwide
Cedar Summit Dairy MN Farmers All Natural Creamery Midwest, Atlanta
PastureLand Midwest Clover Storenetta California
Traders Point Farms IN/IL Naturally Iowa Midwest
Strafford Organic Creamery Eastern NH Stonyfield Yogurt Nationwide
Butternut Farms Nationwide Wallaby Yogurt Nationwide
Castle Rock Farms WI MN, IL Straus Family Creamery Nationwide
St. John’s Organic Farm ID Scenic Central Milk Products Co-op Nationwide
    Natural Products Nationwide
       

 

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