Feedlot Organic

Cooperative grocers are assessing organic dairy offerings

feedlotorganic.jpg
Cornucopia's report graphically contrasted milk sources.

When the Williamson Street Grocery Cooperative, in Madison, Wisconsin, announced that it would suspend sales of Horizon products beginning May 15, the notice to members and customers stated, in part: “Our long process of communicating with and appealing to Horizon Organics over many years has not satisfactorily resolved any of our deep concerns surrounding a lack of transparency in their organic practices.”

Across the country, many other cooperatives have taken similar moves or are reassessing their retail offerings in the dairy case. This reflects the mounting stakes in the organic community as consumers, retailers, and farmers wrestle with the rise of organic livestock factory farms, consumer distaste for the practice, and the reluctance of a corporate-dominated USDA to enforce strong organic standards.

Adding to the controversy is a new study released by The Cornucopia Institute, the Wisconsin-based farm policy research group, examining the ethical and farm management practices associated with the sourcing of milk to the nation’s organic dairy brands. Overall, the study rates 68 different organic dairy name brands and private labels; it concludes that the vast majority of all name-brand organic dairy products are made from milk from farms that follow accepted legal and ethical standards. The full study and a scorecard ranking the various brands can be viewed at www.cornucopia.org.

According to Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst for Cornucopia, the report’s purpose is to “empower consumers and wholesale buyers who want to invest their food dollars to protect hard-working family farmers and ethical organic businesses.” The report, Maintaining the Integrity of Organic Milk, alleges that a handful of leading marketers are shortchanging organic consumers. “Some companies are willing to cut corners to make a buck, and they are hoping consumers won’t notice,” said Kastel.

The booming $16 billion market for organic food and a severe national shortage of organic milk are two factors driving the development of huge confinement organic dairy operations. These operations pen thousands of milk cows into drylots and small sheds and obtain replacement animals for their milking herd from conventional sources, where the calves are not managed organically and may have been raised on feed treated with pesticides, weaned on milk replacer containing blood products recovered from slaughtering operations, and injected with hormones and antibiotics.

Shortly after the report’s release, the Organic Consumers Association (www.organicconsumers.org) polled its 850,000 members, asking if they should initiate a boycott of dairy products produced from factory-farm milk. An overwhelming 96% of respondents endorsed the action, and OCA is now asking its members to boycott organic dairy products made by Horizon and Aurora, two organic heavyweights that received substandard ratings in Cornucopia’s study. Ronnie Cummins, OCA’s executive director, charged that consumers are “being scammed by some of the larger companies who put pictures of happily grazing cows on their products, but in reality keep their cows confined in ways very similar to traditional factory farms.” Cummins also sharply criticized the USDA for not providing the help necessary for more American family farmers and ranchers to make the difficult transition to organics.

Horizon is even facing a boycott of its products in its hometown of Boulder, Colorado. The all-organic Boulder Co-op Market dropped Horizon products in early May following a unanimous vote by its board of directors. Assistant general manager Amy Wyatt told the Boulder Daily Camera that the decision was “a question of truth-in-labeling.”

Craig Harris, the grocery manager for the Tidal Creek Cooperative Food Market in Wilmington, North Carolina, reports that the co-op has dropped both Horizon products and Woodstock milk (the United Natural Foods Inc. private label product packaged by the 6000-head Aurora factory dairy). “We educated our customers as to why we did this and have received their support for our decision not to support factory farming,” explained Harris.

While not all co-ops are comfortable with the language of a boycott, many are determined to educate their members and consumers about suspect organic practices and then choose a course of action. The Ocean Beach People’s Organic Food Co-op in San Diego dropped Horizon products, but Amber Forest McHale, the co-op’s marketing director, explicitly notes that this is not a boycott. Instead, she indicated that the decision was based on information the co-op received about Horizon products.

For its part, Horizon has been aggressively moving to counter the negative publicity and blunt boycott activities. The subsidiary of Dean Foods ($11 billion in sales and the world’s largest dairy marketer and processor) mailed an extensive packet of materials explaining its milk procurement practices to cooperative managers and the media, attempting to refute Cornucopia’s scorecard, which, according to Horizon management, contained an “inherent bias and lack of objectivity.”

In addition, Horizon has been jetting senior officials to private meetings with co-op management to air their concerns. At one such meeting at the Williamson Street Cooperative, the Horizon team even brought one of their family farm “partners” to put a human face on the company. Management is telling cooperatives that they have 325 family farmers supplying them with milk, that these producers contribute 80 percent of the company’s milk supply, and that Horizon is providing financial assistance to another 179 farmers transitioning to organics. The company’s goal, officials insist, is “to convert as many agricultural acres as possible to organic in order to benefit the planet.”

Cornucopia’s Kastel responds that its “research has found nothing to indicate that family farmers whose milk is marketed under the Horizon label aren’t every bit as dedicated and ethical as farmers associated with other competing brands.“But Horizon, Kastel adds, defines a 10,000-head “split” organic/conventional operation in California as one of its family farms. Cornucopia has complained to the USDA that this giant operation is not providing sufficient pasture for its milk herd. And Kastel notes that Horizon is helping to develop more organic factory farms, such as a 2,000-head operation planned for eastern Washington.

In addition, Kastel criticizes the company for the sale of all of its new-born calves at its 4,400-head Idaho operation—a cost-saving move that allows them to sell more organic milk to consumers, rather than feed and raise baby calves. As a consequence of this practice, the company buys one-year-old replacement animals for its milk herd from conventional farms, while suggesting to their consumers that their animals do not receive antibiotics and other materials banned in organic production.

Managers like Art Ames of the Berkshire
Co-op Market in Great Barrington, Mass., have been watching the controversy unfold. The co-op removed Horizon products from its store six months ago over farm practice concerns, published newsletter articles about it, and has posted explanatory signage by the dairy case. Horizon’s campaign has not changed Ames’ mind. Said Ames, “Rather than explaining its actions in any way, [Horizon] instead deflected the entire [Cornucopia] study by going off on a separate and unrelated tangent … It is unacceptable.”

“It’s ironic,” stated Kastel, “that this large corporation [Dean Foods], that paid its CEO $8 million last year, calls the modest-sized families producing around half of the company’s milk—the balance coming from industrial farms—‘partners.’ The organic community, both cooperative retailers and farmers, are a sophisticated lot, and this ‘greenwashing campaign’ appears not too successful in terms of damage control. We still hold out hope that they might decide to move away from factory farms supplying milk and we will once again see the Horizon brand returned to co-op shelves.”

Along with its marketplace activism on organic milk, the co-op community has not given up on the regulatory process at the USDA. By mid-June scores of cooperative grocers had signed on to a group letter, along with farm and consumer groups, supporting organic farmers in their effort to lobby the USDA for more strictly enforced regulations requiring pasture.

The National Cooperative Grocers Association also helped co-ops and co-op members to chime in during the USDA’s official public comment period on pasture regulations, which ended June 12. Co-op stores around the country distributed fliers and displayed posters with the familiar Co-op Advantage logo, urging consumers to contact the USDA.

“Although, obviously, no one in the organic community has abandoned the effort to convince federal regulators to enforce high organic standards, the ultimate arbiters in this controversy are now having their say in the marketplace. Ethical retailers and consumers are the ultimate judges,” said Kastel.

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Will Fantle is the research director for the Cornucopia Institute (www.cornucopia.org).

See other articles from this issue: #125 July - August - 2006