With the publication of an Organic Dairy Scoreboard, added to its other consumer guides, the 10-year-old Cornucopia Institute is once again telling the public to do some homework before going to the grocery store, especially if their shopping list includes organic food.
A Wisconsin-based farm policy institute, the Cornucopia Institute previously published consumer scorecards for eggs, soy foods, breakfast cereals, and other certified organic products. Cornucopia’s work suggests consumers can no longer rely only on the USDA Organic seal.
“Yes,” said Mark A. Kastel, Cornucopia’s co-founder and senior farm policy analyst. “It’s a sad statement of failure for what many of us have spent decades attempting to create. When we asked Congress to create a level playing field, and they passed the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 charging the USDA with promulgating the regulations and protecting consumers and ethical industry participants, we thought there would be one organic label and one standard.”
“In essence,” Kastel told Food Safety News, “we thought that looking for the USDA organic seal was doing the Cliff Notes version of research for safer, more nutritious food that simultaneously protected the environment and respected animals. And we thought that the organic movement was based on economic justice for family-scale farmers.
“We now have, in practice, two organic labels. Unfortunately for shoppers, they both share the same USDA organic seal,” he continued.
“One is about meaning. Shoppers can find this label at many member-owned cooperatives, specialty stores/independent retailers, farmers markets, in your CSA box and from a handful of larger companies that are still generally independently owned and walk their talk.
“The other label is about profit and, with the support of the USDA, operates behind a cloak of secrecy, which our research is designed to lift. These corporations will only do the minimum necessary to secure the (USDA seal on their) label for marketing purposes. And in many cases, either directly or through the industry lobby group the Organic Trade Association, they have either successfully watered down the working definition of the organic label or convinced regulators to look the other way in terms of enforcement.
“It’s a sad testament that consumers now need to do extra homework. And it’s worth the effort because the reward is nutrient-superior food for their family and a payback to society. And that’s where our organic industry reports and brand scorecards come in.
“They are mobile friendly so consumers can use them while standing in front of the dairy cooler. Once they have done their initial research, they don’t have to replicate that every time they shop.
“The good news is that in every geographic location, and every market segment — milk, butter, cheese, ice cream, yogurt, etc. — consumers can buy excellent authentic organic dairy products.”
In the announcement, Cornucopia said its new Organic Dairy Scoreboard was necessary because “giant factory farms are flooding the organic dairy market with fraudulent ‘organic’ milk.” The end-game is that family farms and rural communities are being economically devastated, even though organic milk production jumped by 18.5 percent in 2016 alone.
Horizon brand, owned by the French-owned Groupe Danone, is the largest organic dairy brand in the United States. Cornucopia says Horizon has been terminating contracts with some family-owned farms that do not have any other options. Danone also owns several other brands sold in the United States, including Oikos, Activia, Silk, International Delight, Aptimel, and Evian.
In the current organic milk market, Cornucopia says larger players, such as Danone, are holding a “death warrant” over small producers by creating a glut. Flooding the market can depress prices, which hits small-scale producers harder.
The institute did find some good food safety news related to large-scale producers, though.
“In terms of the improprieties, we have discovered they have generally not involved dairies substituting conventional feed that might be contaminated with agrichemical residue, Kastel says. “Likewise, we haven’t found evidence that the giant dairies that have been abusing consumer trust have used banned pharmaceuticals.”
However, the Organic Dairy Scorecard shows a somewhat uncertain situation when it comes to other food safety concerns.
“… published, peer-reviewed research has indeed documented a demonstrative difference in certain nutritional components of milk from cows that receive a substantial percentage of their feed from fresh pasture. And these compounds, including omega-3 fatty acids, CLA and antioxidants are thought to have health and immune enhancing properties, according to the institute.
“Investigative reports by The Washington Post, and the dairy industry newsletter The Milkweed, clearly illustrated that Aurora Dairy, the nation’s largest private-label organic certified milk supplier, and other milk that comes from large CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) generally located in the desert southwest, produce milk that is materially substandard compared to brands that scored ‘excellent’ or ‘exemplary’ in Cornucopia’s organic dairy scorecard.”
The farm policy researchers also say the U.S. Department of Agriculture is abdicating its legal responsibility for industry oversight. Cornucopia says factory farms in the Southwest, some milking as many as 15,000 cows in desert-like conditions “are defrauding consumers by depriving them of the documented nutritional superiority in pasture-based organic dairy production.”
For its scoring project, Cornucopia ranked about 160 brands for authenticity and quality of production.
“With the USDA’s failure to protect ethical industry participants and consumers from outright fraud, using the Organic Dairy Scorecard is a way for organic stakeholders to take the law into their own hands,” Kastel said.
Cornucopia says the new scorecard gives a consumer a way to vote in front of every dairy case in every market in the country. Organic food sales have grown into “a $50 billion juggernaut” with the Costco wholesale club emerging as the largest organic retailer in the country.
Cornucopia’s plans for more consumer guides
“In addition to the dairy scorecard we have done the same research in a number of other industry sectors where there are controversies and businesses abusing the law and consumer trust — eggs: industrial-scale confinement versus family farms with outdoor access, soy foods: based on Chinese/Eastern European dubious imports or North American grown beans, etc.
“We are imminently going to be releasing a buyer’s guide that will identify most of the prominent brands marketing “organic” fruits and vegetables grown hydroponically, without soil — as is required by federal law. Currently, there is no requirement for conventional or organic produce grown hydroponically to be identified.
“We are also about to release a guide and identifying marketers of organic livestock products (dairy, eggs, and poultry) that exclusively sources feed from North American growers, bypassing imports that Cornucopia research, and the Office of Inspector General at the USDA, have documented as being untrustworthy.”