CORNUCOPIA, Wisconsin - March 22 - A smoldering five-year debate in the organic community had gasoline thrown on it when one of the country's preeminent organic watchdogs released a report this week alleging a handful of leading marketers are shortchanging organic consumers.
The report and scorecard, rating 68 different organic dairy name-brands and private-labels, was produced by The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based farm policy research group. It profiles the growth and commercialization of organic dairying and looks at the handful of firms that now seem intent upon taking over the organic dairy industry by producing all or some of their milk on 2000- to 6000-cow industrial-style confinement dairies.
"Consumers who pay premium prices for organic products do so believing that they are produced with a different kind of environmental ethic, a different kind of animal husbandry ethic, and social justice for family farmers," said Mark Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst for the Institute and the report's primary author. “Our report, Maintaining the Integrity of Organic Milk, and the accompanying dairy brands scorecard will empower consumers and wholesale buyers who want to invest their food dollars to protect hard-working family farmers who are in danger of being washed off the land by a tidal wave of organic milk from these factory mega-farms."
The Cornucopia Institute’s report was a year in the making and involved in-depth research and surveys of the nation’s dairy product manufacturers located in every region of the country. Company owners and senior management had to approve and personally verify their responses to the Institute’s 19 survey questions. Brands received scores ranging from "five cows” (ranking as the best) to “one cow” (substandard) based upon an analysis of the responses and other outside research. The scorecard and report can be easily viewed on the organization’s Web page at www.cornuocpia.org.
The good news in the survey, according to Kastel, is that “the vast majority of all name-brand organic dairy products are produced from milk from farms that follow accepted legal and ethical standards.” But consumers should also know that nearly 20% of the name-brands now available on grocery shelves scored a lowly one cow—the substandard rating. “Even though these packages show cows idyllically grazing on grass-covered pastures, with glowing prose attesting to the marketer's commitment to organic ideals, the milk might well have come from dairies that confine their cows to dirt feedlots and small sheds,” Kastel added.
The scorecard’s release comes amidst a growing national debate occurring in the organic farming community over the rise of confinement, factory farms in organic dairying. Public interest groups have accused the USDA of purposefully ignoring the matter for years, which has allowed these gigantic farms to gain a foothold in the marketplace.
A booming, lucrative $15 billion market for organic food and a severe national shortage of organic milk are two factors that industry observers mention as driving the “get organic milk from any source” philosophy.
“The organic industry’s growth and success has been built on a loving collaboration between family-scale, ecological farmers and consumers hungry for quality food produced in a sustainable and environmentally sensitive approach,” Kastel said. “But some companies are willing to cut corners to make a buck, and they are hoping consumers won’t notice. We are shining a spotlight on these activities,” Kastel added.
Corporate dairy interests haven't been taking Cornucopia's work casually. The nation's largest milk bottler, Dean Foods, which controls the Horizon Organic label, has already gone after the nonprofit group by mobilizing some of their farmers and employees to complain about Cornucopia. And they've worked with other members of their industry lobby group, the Organic Trade Association, to go after Cornucopia's funders and supporters.
"Even though there are legions of organic consumers and farmers and many other public interest groups on record in support of cracking down on the companies that are abusing their customers’ trust, I guess we should feel some pride when an $11 billion corporation and an agribusiness-dominated trade group are frightened enough to go after us," said the organization's Board president, Margaret Hannah. "We will continue to bravely speak truth to power."
A much more anonymous but powerful organic dairy interest was also noted in the report. The Aurora Organic Dairy, in Colorado, is the nation’s biggest factory farm dairy. They produce private-label dairy products for a number of chains such as Safeway, Wild Oats, Giant, and Costco. “No matter where you are in the country, if you are a farmer producing organic milk that truly meets the expectations of consumers by pasturing your animals, you are most likely facing competitive pressure from Aurora’s 6000-head factory farm,” observed Kastel.
Addressing Dean's Horizon brand—the biggest organic brand in the country—was somewhat of a conundrum, Kastel acknowledged. Dean/Horizon procures milk from their own 4000-cow plus farm in Idaho and purchases more from other mega-farms, plus they are helping aggressively develop other factory farms in the U.S.
But Dean/Horizon also purchases 50% or more of their milk from family-scale producers scattered across the country. "Our research has found nothing to indicate that family farmers whose milk is marketed under the Horizon label aren't every bit as dedicated and ethical as farmers associated with other competing brands,” Kastel said.
"We have a moral obligation to produce milk that conforms with the expectation that our customers have in the marketplace”, said Francis Thicke a family farmer from Fairfield, Iowa. "Furthermore, these industrial dairies, that are multiplying at a frightening rate, have the potential to create a glut in organic milk, endangering the livelihood of ethical family producers all over America."
Consumers who want to see how their favorite organic brands fared on the Cornucopia's ratings scorecard can visit the organization's Web site at www.cornucopia.org.