Got organic milk?

By - Oct 1st, 2009 10:48 am
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milk_FullYou’re a conscious consumer. You try to buy local, and you prefer organic. You make a point of supporting the farmers who grow food or raise animals without the use of hormones, pesticides or antibiotics. You like to support farmers who practice gentle, humane animal husbandry; and you want to maintain your health with nutrient-rich, safe food.

One day, you grab a carton of organic milk at a big box retailer and smile at the low price, thinking how great it is that organic is becoming so mainstream that availability is increasing and prices are falling. Well, remember that old adage, you get what you pay for? It holds true. What looks like organic milk, and may even carry a USDA certified organic seal might not be exactly what you assume it is.

Organic is big business, and despite the recession, it’s a segment of the food market that has continued to see growth. According to the Organic Trade Association, organic food and beverage sales grew from $1 billion in 1990 to an estimated $20 billion in 2007, with an anticipated 18 percent annual growth through 2010. It’s not surprising that corporate America wants in on the action. And there’s the problem.

What do you think of when you think organic milk? Most of us think of dairy cows out to pasture in the sun, grazing on grass, free of hormones and antibiotics. Maybe those cows even have names and actually know their calves. The good news is that sometimes, this is all perfectly true, and you can easily find the names of the dairies that do things that way. But the bad news is that a cow in a large-scale factory feedlot, separated from her calves and barely given a chance to graze at pasture, can still produce milk that is stamped with an organic seal. So how do we know the difference? The price is the first tip-off, but it pays to keep tabs on the industry so you know exactly what you are buying.

The definition of organic milk is: milk that is free of pesticides, antibiotics and hormones. But organic farmers, in order to keep their USDA seal, are held to standards that are not revealed in that statement, such as pasture time and all-organic feed. If all dairy producers lived up to the USDA organic standards, life would be easier for consumers. But large-scale industrial dairies have been at the center of violations scandals.

In 2007, Wisconsin’s organic advocacy watchdog group, the Cornucopia Institute, filed complaints against Aurora Organic Dairy of Boulder, Colo. They accused Aurora of confining cattle to feedlots instead of open pasture, and replacing cattle with non-organic animals. Aurora was not alone. The Cornucopia Institute says that a 10,000-cow dairy — the largest supplier for Dean/Horizon — lost its organic certification.

Cornucopia says the USDA found 14 violations at Aurora and investigators recommended the dairy be banned from organic commerce. But according to the institute, “Bush administration officials at the USDA overruled staff, downgrading the ‘death sentence’ to a one-year probation.”

MilkBottlesOutpostThursPICIn October 2009, after eight years of scrutiny and criticism, the USDA rolled out a proposal to amend the federal organic regulations — intended to address abuses by factory farms milking thousands of cows and marketing their product as organic. The proposal stated that organic livestock (raised free of hormones, antibiotics and pesticide-treated grain) must be allowed out to pasture for at least 120 days of the year. Also, 30% of the animals’ feed must come from grazing, not organically produced food delivered in an enclosed indoor structure.

The proposal brought satisfaction to a lot of smaller farmers who viewed the lack of a pasture standard as a massive loophole for big production farms.

But last month, Aurora came under fire again. The Cornucopia Institute filed a formal legal complaint with the USDA in Washington, alleging that Aurora’s High Plains dairy near Kersey, Colo., is failing to graze their dairy cattle as required by the federal standards. According to the institute: “Family dairy farmers have recently appealed directly to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack for swift enforcement action in response to giant corporations ‘gaming the system’ and squeezing them out of business. They claim they are being placed as a competitive disadvantage. A national surplus of organic milk — largely created by factory farms dairies — and magnified by a soft economy— has been driving down milk prices paid to farmers.” Aurora supplies big box retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target and Costco with its private label organic milk.

The Cornucopia Institute publishes an online dairy report, ranking organic dairies according to their compliance with federal standards. The following Wisconsin-area dairies receive “outstanding” and “excellent” ratings: Sassy Cow Creamery, Columbus, Wis.; Crystal Ball Farms, Osceola, Wis.; Whispering Meadows Farm, Ridott, Ill.; Pastureland, Dodge Center, Minn.; Castle Rock Farms, Osseo, Wis.; Sibby’s Farm (ice cream), Westby, Wis.; Cedar Grove Cheese, Plain Wis.; Scenic Central Milk Production Cooperative, Prairie du Sac, Wis.; and Organic Creamery (DCI Cheese), Sun Prairie, Wis. Go to the “Organic Dairy Report and Scorecard” on the Cornucopia Institute website to view the full list, including top-rated dairies as well as the poor performers.

Bottom line: Consumers vote with every swipe of a barcode. By looking for certification labels and keeping tabs on the food industry, consumers make wise choices and vote with their food dollars at the grocery store.

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