When you shell out the extra bucks for certified organic fruits , veggies, dairy, and packaged foods, you should feel confident that you’re getting a cleaner, higher quality product, and that your money benefits farmers engaged in ethical, sustainable practices. U.S. prices of wholesale organic milk have dropped significantly — in some cases by more than 30 percent — in the last year. While this might seem like welcome news for consumers looking for a price break on this premium milk, it comes at a cost to small farmers — some of whom are selling organic grass fed milk at non-organic prices or, worse, being forced to dump it. The problem is that as larger industrialized farms have entered the organic market, it’s increasingly pushed the small players by the wayside. The Washington Post reported a glaring reason why: The number of organic cows rose by 13 percent from 2008 to 2015, but the amount of organic milk products produced rose by 35 percent. The reason behind the large jump is the increase in those mostly larger herds where the cows are fed in the barn instead of going out to pasture as the organic regulations require.
Large Organic Dairies Skimping on Grazing Time
Earlier this month, the Washington Post broke a story claiming that Aurora Organic Dairy, a large, U.S.-based organic milk producer that supplies store-brand organic milk to retailers like Walmart, Costco, and Target, has been operating illegally by failing to graze their cattle according to USDA organic standard. Cows produce more milk, faster, when they’re fed grain in the barn, as opposed to grazing on grass on pasture. Industrialized organic dairies are capitalizing on this by skimping on grazing time, raising thousands of cows in veritable CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operations), yet still gaining the USDA organic label that suggests otherwise.
The Problems That Exist
A a few problems were evident right off the bat at the Aurora Organic Dairy. For starters, the farm is massive, housing 15,000 cows, making it more than 100 times the size of a typical organic herd. Further, organic standards require that cows have free access to certified organic pasture for the entire grazing season, but there are large loopholes in the requirement. The signs of gazing were sparse, and at no point was any more than 10% of the herd outside. Of course, a spokesperson for Aurora denied any wrongdoing. But the article goes on to further dismantle their defense, providing evidence that the nutritional profile of Aurora’s milk suggests that their cows were eating very little grass. Testing by Virginia Tech scientists showed that on key indicators of grass-feeding—levels of two healthy fats, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and alpha-linolenic acid (a type of omega-3)—Aurora’s milk more closely resembled conventional milk than organic.
Organic Violators Continue to Operate
In 2007, for instance, while the USDA sanctioned Aurora Organic Dairy for willfully violating organic standards, the farm was allowed to continue operating after a settlement was reached. The USDA has shown a remarkable lack of interest in whether these big organic dairies are really organic. Most times, they don’t even investigate and when they find a problem, there’s very little punishment, if any. It’s a gross betrayal of the spirit of the organic law. With high concentration of cows, it’s impossible to meet the grazing rule, s they’re not organic.
Hard for The Small Farmer to Compete
The latest Post investigation did prompt some of Aurora’s wholesale customers to look into their practices but so far none, including Wal-Mart and Costco, have decided to change suppliers. Meanwhile, small farmers who allow their herds to graze the right way are unable to compete with the industrialized organic farms that are cutting corners, yet both get rewarded with the same USDA organic label. The Cornucopia Institute has engaged with two law firms that are investigating Aurora’s role in creating a glut of organic milk that has driven prices down and pushed many small farmers out of the business.
Organic Label Standards
Fortunately, the American Grassfed Association (AGA) recently introduced much-needed grass fed standards and certification for American -grown-gras fed dairy, which will allow for greater transparency and conformity. We strongly advise you to ensure your dairy is AGA certified as grass fed. As reported by Organic Authority: “The new regulations are the product of a year’s worth of collaboration amongst dairy producers like Organic Valley as well as certifiers like Pennsylvania Certified Organic and a team of scientists. They came up with a standard that’s good for the animals, that satisfies what consumers want and expect when they see grass fed on the label, and that is economically feasible for farmers. Unfortunately, even with a claim of grass fed, it’s still a buyer beware market when it comes to choosing dairy. As it stands, dairy can be sold as “grass fed” whether the cows ate solely grass or received silage, hay or even grains during certain times.
Non-Organic Ben & Jerry’s Continues to Stall on Cleaning Up Dairy
The Vermont brand has been built on a bucolic image of cows grazing on endless pastures . . . Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and other Vermont companies have used this idyllic imagery to sell their products. Gone are the days, however, when most of Vermont’s cows were grazing in spectacularly scenic landscapes. Now a majority of Vermont’s cows are locked up in . . . ‘confined animal feeding operations’ or CAFOs . . . grazing on concrete with a diet trich in GMO corn and pesticides. The most important thing we can do today as conscious consumers, farmers and food workers is to regenerate public health, the environment and climate stability. We can do this most readily by moving away from industrial, GMO and factory-farm food toward an organic, pasture-based, soil-regenerative, humane, carbon-sequestering and climate-friendly agriculture system.
Ben & Jerry’s which is owned by Unilever, is still not living up to their natural and socially responsible reputation. Ben & Jerry’s does some things right, like supporting GMO labeling, and their environmentally friendly image has propelled the ice-cream maker to a $600 million-a-year enterprise — slated to be a billion-dollar-a-year corporation by 2020.
However, Ben & Jerry’s is a non-organic dairy, and they source their milk largely from CAFOs. In Vermont, more than 200 dairy farms have transitioned to organic and returned their cows to a grass-based diet. Regeneration Vermont is dedicated to bringing sustainable, regenerative agriculture back to Vermont and that includes bringing Ben & Jerry’s into the discussion. As of July 2017, however, they have not, and they continue to profit immensely off cheap, inhumanely produced and environmentally destructive milk while passing themselves off as a natural, environmentally responsible company.
Cornucopia’s Organic Dairy Scorecard Helps Level the Playing Field
The Cornucopia Institute, through research and investigations on agricultural and food issues, provides needed information to family farmers, consumers and other stakeholders in the good food movement and to the media. They support economic justice for the family-scale farming community – partnered with consumers – backing ecologically produced local, organic and authentic food. The Cornucopia Institute is an organic industry watchdog whose core constituencies are family farmers across the U.S. and consumers concerned about the availability and quality of organic foods. Their goal is to empower you to make informed purchasing decisions. You might be surprised to see many big-name organic brands ranking near the bottom of the list, even receiving a “zero” rating. In this case, it’s not worth your money to pay for an “organic” product that’s likely no better than conventional. You’d be better served by supporting the ethical farms that received a “4- or 5-cow” rating instead (meaning their farming practices are either excellent or outstanding).
You Will Taste and See the Difference
While you’ll certainly notice the difference in flavor when purchasing truly grass fed, organic dairy, you can even see the difference. Grass fed organic milk tends to be yellowish, not pure white. The coloration comes from the natural antioxidant carotenoids found in the grass, which is a precursor to vitamin A. When cows are raised on dried grass or hay, as opposed to fresh-growing grass, you end up with a whiter product, which is an indication of reduced carotenoid and antioxidant content.
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