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Milking the organic label

(article, Suzi Steffen)

Getting your organic milk from Safeway? How about Target, Costco, or Wild Oats? If it’s private-label milk, you’d better start thinking of it as “organic,” not organic. 

Several weeks ago, the USDA ordered Aurora Organic Dairy to stop labeling some of its dairy products as organic and to remove several cows from the herd the company had been calling organic. But the Environmental News Network later reported that perhaps the USDA and Aurora got a bit too cozy even after this recommendation. In late August, after the USDA found that Aurora had “willfully violated 14 provisions of the Organic Food Production Act,” the company — owner of five large corporate dairy farms in Texas and Colorado and a processing plant in Colorado — kept its organic certification and received a penalty of one year of supervision. 

That’s not cutting it for Wisconsin’s [htttp:// "Cornucopia Institute" newpage=true], a “progressive farm policy group” promoting family farm ownership. Cornucopia runs the Organic Integrity Project and stays on top of such ongoing organic issues as Wal-Mart’s recent attempts to sell cheaply priced organic foods.

[%image feed-image float=right width=250 caption="An depiction of cows from Aurora Organic Dairy's webpage."]

Why all the fuss? Isn’t it good to have more organic milk (and other organic foods) in the world — and to have it available to an ever-increasing range of customers? (This is one of the discussions in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore's Dilemma — a discussion that famously resulted in a very public argument between Pollan and John Mackey, the founder of Whole Foods.)

For one, big corporate “organic” dairies aren’t providing the same kind of access to fresh green grass that organic farms are required to give to their dairy cows, according to the Natural Food Network (the article also notes that Aurora is threatening to sue the Organic Consumers Association and the Cornucopia Institute). For another, the products from these megafarms end up squeezing out products from smaller organic dairies that do hew to the national organic standards. 

The OCA has been asking co-ops and natural food stores to boycott Horizon Organics since April 2006, and now it’s asking for a boycott of Aurora products, too. That includes Safeway’s “O” brand, Costco’s “Kirkland Signature,” Wild Oats’ organic milk, and Giant’s “Nature’s Promise.” 

Will this convince the USDA and factory farms to take better care of their cows? The boycotts do raise awareness among consumers, but do they hurt companies enough to convince them to spend money on improving cows’ conditions — and raising the prices of their organic milk? 

A potential solution — sadly not available nationwide — is to buy organic milk directly from a local organic dairy, one that provides milk and cream in thick glass bottles. (Here in western Oregon, Noris Dairy provides home delivery of such products.) Perhaps someday we’ll all return to the milk deliveries our grandparents knew, with organic farmers providing a patchwork of deliveries across cities and towns.

feed-image, l