Insights by Goldie: Got organic milk — USDA certified?

by Goldie Caughlan

This article was originally published in June 2006

More than any other product, milk is the most frequently purchased organic food. It’s often the first purchase of anything organic — making it the “gateway” to other organic foods, especially for families with children.

While retail organic sales increased 15 to 20 percent annually for the last 10 years, demand for organic milk is even stronger with 25 to 30 percent growth, exceeding supply by an estimated 10 percent.

Such growth and “acceptance” by corporate retailers has some analysts crowing that this is progress. However, with demand pushing growth, and as organic mega-dairies expand across the country, small-dairy farmers complain that these larger “organic” dairies are taking advantage of the system and putting smaller farms — the ones that built the organic movement — at a competitive disadvantage.

USDA organic regulations require dairy animals to have “access to pasture.” But interpretations vary on what “access” and “pasture” mean.

I served on the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) from January 2001 to January 2006, participating in many discussions and votes to clarify dairy rules. Hundreds of dairy farmers, certifiers and consumers provided input. The NOSB in turn recommended to the USDA that “access” means grazing on pasture at least 120 days a year. We stated that regular confinement of lactating cows for other than temporary health issues or extreme weather is not acceptable.

The NOSB recommendations on pasture access are supported by all stakeholders, but not the USDA. It recently convened a symposium on pasture issues and is expected to propose new regulations on pasture and confinement issues by mid-June. There will be a public comment period.

It’s unlikely that the USDA will follow NOSB’s recommendations. With demand for organic milk exceeding supply, the political pressures on the USDA are showing.

The issues
The Cornucopia Institute, an organic watchdog and advocate for family-scale farming, recently sued the USDA after it ignored numerous requests to investigate conditions at several huge, factory-style dairies that are certified organic.

These dairies are in arid regions with 5,000 to 10,000 cows and photographs show that only a handful of cows can be seen “grazing” on no visible green grass, while the vast majority are in dirt-pen feedlots or confined indoors. These are serious concerns with potentially far-reaching consequences.

There are reports of evidence that some of the mega-dairies sell off their baby heifers to avoid the cost of raising them on 100 percent organic milk. It’s reported that these dairies buy mature, non-organic cows and “transition” them into existing organic herds — a practice that’s not allowed, since these cows could have been raised on milk “replacer” (which may include dried cow blood), genetically engineered feed, and treated with antibiotics.

Cornucopia says some calves are transferred or sold to neighboring feed-lots, then brought back to the farm later for integrating into the herd. Such practices are deplorable if proven, and should result in heavy penalties and loss of certified organic status.

Horizon Organic, owned by Dean Foods, says 75 to 80 percent of its milk comes from small farmers (some of whom I’ve met and are dedicated to organic standards), but yes, 20 to 25 percent of its supply comes from big dairies. Horizon says it’s trying to increase pasture acreage but did not answer a query from our Sound Consumer editor about sourcing milk from one or more of these factory-style farms.

Organic Valley, on the other hand, is a farmers’ cooperative with 100 percent of its supply from small dairies — all supporting pasture provisions and other organic requirements. Organic Valley even gave up contracts to supply a national discount chain, refusing to drop its price for milk rather than squeeze its family farmers.

The consumer’s view
A recent survey reports that 72 percent of the respondents expect milk to be from cows that graze on pasture. Another survey from the Center for Food Safety found that 61 percent would stop buying organic if they learned the cows weren’t pastured.

Nature gave cows four stomachs so they could digest grass. Also, virtually all organic milk cartons — including many private-label store brands with milk from “organic” feedlot operations — show happy cows grazing! Consumers know that pasture-grazing results in milk with healthier fats, including more omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic fatty acids. Consumers have a right to expect that what they see is what they get.

Also in this issue

Letters to the editor, June 2006

Wool for home insulation, Organic sustainability?, Soy matters, and more

Your co-op, June 2006

Election outcome, Annual membership meeting, Board meetings