10.13.2008

Before you buy "organic"...


I received this press release at work and found it interesting. I've long wondered whether the organic products offered at chain groceries (especially Wal-mart) are manufactured sustainably, with thought and consideration given to the farmer. This release basically says that big agribusiness are curtailing the organic laws in order to improve their profits. It mentions Horizon as being the largest dairy farmers in the industry, and the brand is readily found at Wal-mart and Reasor's.

While the majority of the release makes the situations sound pretty dire, it's basically a few large farmers that have been breaking the standards of organic dairy farming. The release concludes with, "The good news for consumers, according to the Cornucopia study, is that 85 percent of all name-brand marketers are respecting both the letter and spirit of the federal organic law."

I've posted the entire release and highlighted the parts I found most interesting. I'd love to get some feedback on this. I think, obviously, the best route to go is to buy milk from local farmers, but if you are shopping for dairy at the grocery store, it appears as though Whole Foods might be your best bet. It offers the widest selection so that, once you check Cornucopia's dairy standard and scorecard, you can find a brand that earns high marks. -HW

Collateral Damage: Organic Farmers Being Squeezed Out
Corporate Takeover Threatens Farmers, Mission
Cornucopia, WI — Groups representing organic farmers and their customers are calling on consumers to help save the organic industry by exclusively patronizing dairies, and other brands, that uphold the spirit and letter of the federal organic law. They claim the acquisition of major brands by corporate agribusiness, and their dependence on factory farms, threatens to force families off the land and deprive consumers of the superior nutritional food they think they are paying for.

"This could be the end of the organic industry as we know it," said Mark A. Kastel, codirector of The Cornucopia Institute, widely recognized as the organic industry's most aggressive farming watchdog. The Institute reports that the proliferation of industrial-scale dairies has bloated the organic milk supply, inflated the price of feed for dairy cows, and resulted in a financial crisis for family farmers, even as the market continues to grow—defying the general economic downturn.

The Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute announced today that it has filed formal legal complaints, seeking USDA enforcement, against two more operators of giant industrial dairies. The farm policy research group claims they are "masquerading as organic." Cornucopia also announced that it has released an update to its popular organic scorecard helping consumers make informed choices in the marketplace in selecting dairy brands that represent the highest level of organic practices.

The dairy segment, second only behind fresh fruits and vegetables, represents nearly $4 billion worth of annual revenue or about 15 to 20 percent of the organic industry.

For eight years, participants in the organic community—farmers, consumers, retailers, and other stakeholders—have fought the industrialization of organic milk by giant corporations and factory farms milking as many as 10,000 animals. Although the National Organic Standards Board, the expert panel set up by Congress to advise the Secretary of Agriculture, has voted to crack down on industry scofflaws five times since 2000, Bush administration officials have refused to act.

"This cynical corporate takeover of organic farming, an agriculture segment that is held in high regard by consumers, resulting in a highly successful and growing market, has been aided and abetted by the gross disregard of the USDA's enforcement responsibilities," said Merrill Clark, a certified organic livestock producer and former member of the USDA's National Organic Standards Board.

Cornucopia’s legal complaints to the USDA targeted Phoenix-based Shamrock Farms, which operates an industrial dairy milking approximately 11,000 cows in the desert 54 miles south of their plant, and the Rockview Farms Dairy of Downey, California, the operator of another giant industrial dairy in the desert north of Las Vegas, Nevada.

"When Cornucopia staff visited Shamrock’s operation we found inadequate, overgrazed pasture adjacent to their milking facility, and we were told by Shamrock employees that the confined cows had not been out in weeks," Kastel stated. Federal organic regulations require that cows be grazed.

"Not only do these confinement operations create an unfair competitive playing field, discriminating against all the family farmers who work hard to fulfill both the letter and intent of the national organic standards, they also are denying the consumer the extra healthful nutrients that university studies have verified as being present in the milk of cows that graze fresh green grass," said Kathie Arnold, president of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance.

Cornucopia’s filing of a legal action against Rockview Farms Dairy chronicled similar alleged violations of organic livestock management rules. Rockview Farms, of Downey, Calif., produces its organic milk at a giant industrial farm in the Nevada desert near Amargosa Valley, just northwest of Las Vegas. Its milk is marketed under the Good Heart label.

"Just like Shamrock, Rockview's phony-baloney organic farm primarily confines their cattle in a massive feedlot milking both organic and conventional cows," Kastel affirmed. "This outfit is everything that organics isn't—in addition to confining their cattle, Rockview has been accused of environmental damage and even irrigates some of their land with waste products from a municipal sewage plant."

One way that Cornucopia is fighting unethical corporate players like Shamrock, Rockview, and the industry’s largest dairy, Dean Foods, which markets organic milk under the Horizon label, is to educate and engage consumers.

Cornucopia just updated its organic dairy scorecard, which ranks every brand in the country—large and small—based on their ethical approach to their milk production. It contains 107 organic brands covering fluid milk, yogurt, cheese, butter, and ice cream.

"We have encouraged our 900,000 members and collaborators to use Cornucopia's research when making their purchasing decisions for organic dairy products,” said Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA). In the past, OCA has called on its membership to boycott the Horizon brand and milk produced by Aurora Dairy, the nation's largest manufacturer of private-label organic milk.

"We are carefully examining Cornucopia's new findings and are likely to ramp up our pressure campaign to force these bad actors to change their business models or to exit the industry," Cummins added.

The good news for consumers, according to the Cornucopia study, is that 85 percent of all name-brand marketers are respecting both the letter and spirit of the federal organic law.

Besides farmers concerned with their livelihoods, consumers have also voiced dissatisfaction with the USDA's lack of enforcement by the alleged organic scofflaws.

A growing body of scientific literature clearly indicates that legitimately produced organic milk, from pasture-based animals, offers distinct nutritional advantages. This year Newcastle University reported that milk from grazing cows on organic farms contains significantly higher amounts of beneficial fatty acids, antioxidants, and vitamins.

According to Gillian Butler, livestock project manager for the Newcastle University study, their research “clearly shows that on organic farms, letting cows graze naturally, using forage-based diet, is the most important reason for the differences in the composition between organic and conventional milk.”

"I know I'm not the only consumer who would feel ripped off to know that when I spend extra money on organic milk for my family that it comes from giant factory farms," said Andrea Rae of San Diego, Calif.

The Cornucopia Institute’s updated organic dairy survey and scorecard can be found at www.cornucopia.org. And photo galleries containing images of the Rockview and Shamrock factory farm dairies can also be viewed on the Cornucopia web page.

2 Comments:

Natasha said...

Aaron and I used to buy Horizon all the time...eek.

Shelly Collins said...

I still buy Horizon. We just can't win can we?
That's it, I'm buying my own cows. I think they'll fit in my back yard.