As organic food has gained in popularity–and profits–over recent years, Big Food has begun to buy up existing organic lines and to create their own. Throughout this takeover process the meaning of just what “organic” means has become blurred, sometimes even bastardized. In order to create products that have the ability to go the distance for a national marketplace and meet mainstream consumer demand for flavor and texture, powerful, large-scale food corporations have successfully argued for the ability to include a growing number of additives previously prohibited under the “organics” rubric. Additionally, the once rigorous standards for food products to be labeled “organic” have now begun to blur–particularly in the organic milk and dairy product industry where mega-dairies and factory farms have adopted the “organic” label and may be anything but…
The U.S. organic market now counts more than $40 billion in annual sales and includes products imported from about 100 countries. To enforce the organic rules across this vast industry, the USDA allows farmers to hire and pay their own inspectors to certify them as “USDA Organic”…even large, prominent players can fall short of standards without detection.
Organic requirements for milk
Organic cows cannot be given hormones to stimulate milk production. And any feed or pasture for the cows must be organic — that is, grown without most synthetic pesticides.
Second, to be considered organic, cows must obtain a certain percentage of their diet from grazing…The grazing requirement makes milk more costly to produce because it requires a certain amount of pasture land and because a grazing cow produces less milk than one eating a grain diet optimized for milk production…
The [organic] milk is measurably different [than non-organic milk], and according to the USDA, it [organic methods] improves cow health and reduces the environmental impacts of agriculture. Moreover, because grazing is natural cow behavior, some say it is more humane.
Mega-Dairies in the Business of Organics
Aurora Organic Dairy, a company that produces enough milk to supply the house brands of Walmart, Costco and other major retailers…
Aurora, already gargantuan, has continued to grow. In recent months it has been considering an expansion in Columbia, Mo., that may rely on milk from as many as 30,000 cows, according to local media coverage.
The growth of mega-dairies that may fall short of organic standards and produce cheaper milk appears to be crushing many small dairies, some analysts said.
Milk and Dairy Products as an example of changing “organic” standards
With milk, the critical issue is grazing. Organic dairies are required to allow the cows to graze daily throughout the growing season — that is, the cows are supposed to be grass-fed, not confined to barns and feedlots. This method is considered more natural and alters the constituents of the cows’ milk in ways consumers deem beneficial.
But during visits by The Washington Post to Aurora’s High Plains complex across eight days last year, signs of grazing were sparse, at best. Aurora said its animals were out on pasture day and night, but during most Post visits the number of cows seen on pasture numbered only in the hundreds. At no point was any more than 10 percent of the herd out. A high-resolution satellite photo taken in mid-July by Digital Globe, a space imagery vendor, shows a typical situation — only a few hundred on pasture.
The milk from Aurora also indicates that its cows may not graze as required by organic rules. Testing conducted for The Post by Virginia Tech scientists shows that on a key indicator of grass-feeding, the Aurora milk matched conventional milk, not organic.
Finally, The Post contacted the inspectors who visited Aurora’s High Plains dairy and certified it as “USDA Organic.” Did the inspectors have evidence that the Aurora cows met the grazing requirement?
It turns out that they were poorly positioned to know.
If organic farms violate organic rules, consumers are being misled and overcharged…
It is more difficult…for outsiders to judge whether a dairy is following other organic rules — such as those regarding hormones and organic feed.
Ten years ago, after a complaint from a consumer group, Aurora faced USDA allegations that it breached organic rules regarding grazing and other issues. The USDA charged that Aurora was in “willful violation” of organic standards, but a settlement agreement allowed it to continue to operate.
There have been no charges since then.
But some small organic dairy farmers say that the new, large organic dairies that have popped up in the West are violating standards.
On visits across several days to seven large organic operations in Texas and New Mexico in 2015, a Post reporter saw similarly empty pastures.
“About half of the organic milk sold in the U.S. is coming from very large factory farms that have no intention of living up to organic principles. Thousands of small organic farmers across the United States depend on the USDA organic system working. Unfortunately, right now, it’s not working for small farmers or for consumers.” -Mark Kastel, Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit group representing thousands of organic farmers.