Organic food production is based on a system of farming that mimics natural ecosystems and maintains and replenishes the fertility of the soil. Many consumers believe this approach to food production ensures farm animal well-being. Indeed, access to pasture-often associated with organic farming-protects foot and leg strength, wards off lameness and hoof lesions, promotes udder health, enhances the immune system and allows the animals to satisfy their natural behavior patterns and alleviate stress. In addition, maintaining pastures benefits the soil and improves the quality of milk. Studies show milk from grazing animals is higher in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E and antioxidants, compared to milk from conventionally raised animals-who are typically raised in a feedlot system that forces cows to live on dirt or concrete. In addition, conventionally raised animals are often genetically manipulated and given hormones, antibiotics and unnatural additives.
However, a recent report by the Cornucopia Institute shows large, industrial dairy operations are also entering the organic dairy market without adhering to the essential environmental and animal care practices that constitute true organic farming. Under the organic certification program administered by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), dairy products labeled "USDA certified organic" may come from animals confined to feedlots, concrete flooring, stanchions or sheds-with very limited access to pasture. According to an official with whom we spoke from the USDA National Organic Program, even tail docking may be allowed, depending on the certifying agent's review of a farm's management plan. Though four sections in the USDA organic regulations state organic dairy animals should have access to pasture, the agency says the regulatory language "access to pasture for ruminants" is too vague to legally enforce. Under the program, cows may actually come from farms that confine thousands of animals in substandard conditions at one site.
Two large companies-Horizon Organics (a subsidiary of Dean Foods) and Aurora Organics-are particularly criticized in the Cornucopia report. Their aggressive approach in the marketplace is undercutting smaller farmers who enter organic farming due to commitment to principles rather than for economic gain alone. Dean Foods, the leading company in conventional milk production, obtained 55 percent of the organic milk market by acquiring Horizon Organics. And Cornucopia reports that one Aurora facility had not even undergone the organic certification process, yet was still given organic certification. Cornucopia has filed a formal complaint with the USDA regarding this matter.
Companies like Horizon and Aurora keep organic milk prices low through vertical integration (controlling important aspects not only of milk production, but also of processing and marketing), dual production (simultaneously producing conventional and organic milk), high volume production and other practices that are not in line with organic
They sell off their calves, who would have to be raised for two years before they began producing milk, and then buy conventionally raised cows at approximately one year of age. These non-organic cows can be entered into organic milk production after 12 months under USDA rules-a disingenuous practice that saves the producer money at the expense of the animals. Ambitious production goals in combination with the industrialized conditions in which cows are kept create a high death and burnout rate, so the animals often have to be replaced.
Consumer demand for organic milk is growing, even creating a shortage in some grocery stores. Sales are no longer restricted to natural food co-ops or supermarkets; Wal-Mart is now the biggest seller of organic milk. A combination of greater demand, a shortage of suppliers, higher proceeds and loopholes in the USDA organic standards program has led the conventional milk industry to exploit the opportunity to enter the organic market. The fact that organic products have gained such popularity among a broad consumer base is an encouraging development. However, consumers concerned with the environment and animal welfare must stay vigilant to ensure that the organic standards, which make these food choices attractive in the first place, do not further erode due to pressure from the conventional food industry.
For More Information
- If you desire genuine organic milk products, shop for items with independent organic standards and enforcement programs that surpass those of the USDA. Consumers may view these programs by state by visiting www.ams.usda.gov/NOP/CertifyingAgents/Accredited.html. Ask farmers about their practices, and if possible, visit their farms.
- In order to support organic farmers following the highest standards, please visit the Cornucopia Institute scorecard to find the companies in your area at www.cornucopia.org/index.php/dairy_brand_ratings/. The report also provides a history of the development of the USDA organic standards and details how factory farms are skirting the federal rules governing organic food production.