Credibility in Organic Production: An exchange

Responding to Aurora Dairy, WIRED magazine and media B.S.

April 16
The letter below was sent in response to Cissy Bowman’s article in Cooperative Grocer #135, March-April 2008.

Cissy Bowman’s recent article, “Consumer Protection -- Is the organic food industry leaving a bad taste in our mouths?,” incorrectly and unfairly impugns the integrity of our company, Aurora Organic Dairy. This is far from reality and we appreciate the opportunity to set the record straight.

The USDA has confirmed that all of our organic certifications are valid and that our milk has been produced under continuous organic certification. That means our milk has been properly labeled with the USDA organic seal.

We pasture our dairy cows (both milking and dry cows) for at least 120 days during the growing season at each of our five organic dairy farms. We are proud of the excellent health of our herds and the outstanding job done by our full-time, on-farm large-animal veterinarians and trained animal care specialists to ensure that our cows are healthy, comfortable and productive. 

All of our dairies are certified by the Validus Services Animal Welfare Review process, a USDA-verified certification process that includes on-farm inspections of herd health and animal care practices by independent auditors. This review program is not required as part of USDA organic certification, but it helps us ensure we manage our herd to the highest levels of animal welfare standards.

One result of the success of Aurora Organic Dairy has been the conversion of thousands of acres of conventional land to organic. Since Aurora Organic was established in 2003, we have participated in the conversion of more than 50,000 acres of farmland from conventional to organic-either land we farm ourselves, or by providing technical assistance and in some cases financial assistance to our network of more than 120 farmer partners who grow organic feed crops for us.

We believe converting land to organic is a good thing because it means fewer tons of synthetic fertilizer and pesticide sprayed on the land, fewer agricultural workers and their families exposed to the associated long-term health effects, better care for animals, reduced use of antibiotics and artificial growth hormones (never used at our farms), and a more sustainable approach to stewardship of precious resources like soils and water.

Our mission is making high-quality organic milk and butter more affordable and more available to American families.  We don’t believe organic goodness in the dairy case should be a high-priced luxury only affordable for some consumers. Organic milk and butter should be on every table, every day, because it’s better for American families, for animals and for the planet.

We appreciate this opportunity to share our perspective with your readers.

Sincerely,
Mark Retzloff, chairman
Marc Peperzak, chief executive officer
Aurora Organic Dairy

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Response

May 29, 2008

My article, “Consumer Protection -- Is the organic food industry leaving a bad taste in our mouths?,” was not intended to impugn the integrity of Aurora Organic Dairy. It was intended to assist retailers and consumers in understanding that, despite the recent bad press, there is integrity and oversight in the National Organic Program (NOP), its accredited certifiers and in certified operations. I wanted to reassure people that there is a system in place for complaints and investigation that does lead to action. The Aurora Dairy case is an example of how this system works. We also need to recognize that the NOP is not yet six years old and is still having growing pains as it struggles to reflect the intent and letter of the law as well as the demands of its newly regulated industry.

CFR 205, the National Organic Rule, does not at this time address all of the details that consumers may expect from “organic” production and certainly is an unfinished work when it comes to livestock standards. The purpose of the NOP is to provide a consistent standard for what will be labeled and sold as organic in the United States. The law that established the program-the Organic Foods Production Act-contained little language for livestock standards, which are especially tricky. Such regulations need to adequately reflect the realities of each region’s climate and natural resources. The National Organic Standards Board and NOP staff are working toward expansion and completion of these rules. We see examples of this work in the proposed language for access to pasture as well as other recommendations that have resulted from years of input and research. The task is not simple nor is the process quick.

While we have waited for a long time to see the standards finished, organic still remains the only regulated “eco label” and has proven itself to be popular among well-informed consumers. Organizations such as the Cornucopia Institute, Organic Consumers Association and others have become the industry’s and the consumer’s watchdogs. Lawsuits have been brought against USDA-and won. The NOP investigates complaints and takes compliance action when they see fit, and this is what happened in the Aurora case. This is the organic program in action, demonstrating that it is sensitive to the program responsibilities as well as to what consumers think.

Why did I choose to mention Aurora in my previous article? Because the story has been widely publicized, and that publicity has generated consumer concern that organic foods are produced under systems no different than conventional ones. Agricultural Marketing Services (AMS) initiated its investigation of Aurora based upon a complaint alleging insufficient pasture for its animals. AMS also uncovered what they felt to be the improper transitioning of animals and a failure to maintain adequate records.

On Aug. 29, 2007, AMS entered into a consent agreement with Aurora in response to a Notice of Proposed Revocation issued earlier in the year alleging violations of NOP regulations. Under the consent agreement, Aurora’s facilities must meet several conditions to continue to operate as a certified organic dairy operation. These include removing certain animals from the organic herd and ceasing to apply the organic label to certain milk.

Under the agreement, Aurora’s Platteville, Colo. and Dublin, Texas plants are being closely monitored for compliance with the provisions of the consent agreement. If AMS finds the terms of the agreement are not being met, the agreement will be withdrawn and AMS could revoke the organic certification. As a result of the investigation, Aurora’s certifying agent, the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA), agreed to make several changes in its operation, including attending increased NOP training and hiring additional personnel.

Bruce Knight, undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, said “The organic industry is booming, and the National Organic Program is a high priority for USDA… Through this consent agreement consumers can be assured that milk labeled as organic in the supermarket is indeed organic.” Although it may be an open question how high a priority NOP is for USDA, this action is an example of the NOP in action and of certifiers and certified operations making improvements when problems are identified. The negative press may make organics look bad but also shows the desire of all parties to live by the regulations. Consumers need help in understanding that the system that initiated the Aurora investigation and subsequent actions exemplify what the organic program should be doing.

Today we see labels in the marketplace and propaganda that disparage organics. There are claims that conventional dairy and beef products are “better than organic” because they are grass fed or because they use antibiotics. Often this information is based on misunderstandings of organic regulations; and often it is purposefully untrue and intended to make organic methods look bad or non-organic operations look good. All one needs to do is a web search using key words “better than organic” to find these claims. A quick reading will have the unaware consumer thinking that organic dairy cows are out there suffering from lack of grass to eat, sick and dying from diseases because organic farmers won’t give them medication. The reality is that access to pasture is required for organic cows, and the organic farmer must medicate a sick animal when the need arises.

A prime example of this kind of misinformation is an article by Jackie Avner, published in the Denver Post on July 27, 2007. Avner says she “doesn’t like to buy organic food products,” and that hers is “a principled decision reached through careful consideration of effects of organic production practices on animal welfare and the environment.” She goes on to quote Dr. Chuck Guard, a professor of veterinary medicine at Cornell University, who reportedly told her: “that it pains him that many technological advancements in animal medicine are prohibited for use on organic farms.”

He described how organic farms don’t use drugs to control parasites, worms, infections and illness in their herds: “Drugs take away pain and suffering,” he said. “Proponents of organic food production have thrown away these medical tools, and the result is unnecessary pain and suffering for the animals.”

Avner then concludes that: “On organic farms, animals with treatable illnesses such as infections and pneumonia are left to suffer, or given ineffective homeopathic treatments, in the hope that they will eventually get better on their own. If recovery without medication seems unlikely, a dairy cow with a simple respiratory infection will be slaughtered for its meat, or sold to a traditional farm where she can get the medicine she needs. I don’t buy organic milk because this system is cruel to animals, and I know that every load of regular milk is tested for antibiotics to ensure that it is antibiotic-free.”

From my perspective, having worked with organic farmers for 20 years, I can tell you that this is absolute (and non-organic) hogwash.

Most recently, the 15th anniversary edition of WIRED magazine displayed a bold cover that announced “Forget Organics.” Inside was a two-page spread, emblazoned in huge letters with the words “SCREW ORGANIC” printed onto a photo of a conventional beef operation. The accompanying article, “Organics Are Not the Answer,” accuses organic production of causing more pollution and having lower yields than conventional production. In the article, author Joanna Pearlstein cites the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as her source for information. I talked to Pearlstein, and she was clear that the article was not intended to take a stand on organics, but to look at its carbon footprint. I asked her where she got her information.

Then I took a look at FAO reports on organics and could find only information greatly supportive of organics. Articles and studies include such statements as: “The FAO Report concludes that a broad scale shift to organic agriculture can produce enough food on a global per capita basis to feed the world’s population over the next 50 years. Workable solutions to pressing problems such as the growth in population and consumption, oil peak, fossil fuel dependence, food transport, and agricultural sector employment are all built in holistically to the organic agriculture paradigm.” and “The FAO Report strongly suggests that a worldwide shift to organic agriculture can fight world hunger and at the same time tackle climate change. According to FAO’s previous World Food Summit report, conventional agriculture, together with deforestation and rangeland burning, are responsible for 30 percent of the CO2 and 90 percent of nitrous oxide emissions worldwide.”

Danish researchers suggest that “a 50 percent organic conversion by 2020 in the food exporting regions of North America and Europe would have little impact on the availability and prices of food. Converting from chemically intensive farming to organic farming can initially decrease yields, but the adjustment evens out over time and provides numerous non-material benefits such as land improvement.”

One could spend days reading the FAO’s positive reports on organic production’s environmental footprint. I was hard pressed to find the kind of information alluded to in the WIRED article, so I asked Ms. Pearlstein for her sources and was given several links which yielded the following:

  • The source on yields was from a study that ended in 1999. Download a PDF of the study at www.orgprints.org/8390.
  • The greenhouse gas link states that “There is certainly sufficient evidence available to state that organic agriculture overall would have less of an environmental impact than conventional agriculture.” To download a PDF of this study, visit www.defra.gov.uk and search for “EV02007_4601_FRP.pdf”.
  • The slaughter weight study compared organic against conventionally raised cattle (those using steroids, hormones and antibiotics for growth enhancement). To see the study, visit http://jas.fass.org and search for “jas.2007-0756” in keyword search.
  • The fertilizer claim study link cited was no longer active, and another link cited was a study on growing organic transplants not organic food.

No mention was made in WIRED of positive FAO reports. There is only a negative spin or maybe a lack of good research. This is the kind of bad press that needs a response from Aurora and other organic operations, from USDA and certifiers, and from retailers who are the last link between organic products and the consumer.

Since the announcement of the Aurora investigation I have had calls, interviews and questions from consumers asking if organic products are really different than conventional ones. I know that they are-in production, labeling and composition. But I am in the organic certification loop from decades of production on my certified organic farm and from providing the certification to others. The vast majority of folks out there have little access to information outside of the mainstream press and, as a result, organic foods have been getting a muddied reputation.

The readers of Cooperative Grocer need to be able to address these accusations and misinformation, not by defending companies or brand names, but by explaining the quality assurance system that “organic” means. The USDA’s actions regarding Aurora and the improvements in their organic system plan are an example of this process at work. It is important that retailers and their clients know that these things take place and how to respond when they suspect violations of the regulations. Transparency of this process is necessary, even when it makes us uncomfortable. Ultimately, these are issues that require ongoing research, exploration, open discussion and proactive consumer education.

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Cissy Bowman is an organic certifier and manages Hoosier Organic Marketing Education, a non-profit organization in Indiana (317-539-5317).

See other articles from this issue: #137 July - August - 2008