Friday, August 17, 2007

Local Food: Organic milk from factory farms? A cause to pause.

“Organic” is complicated. I alluded to this earlier on, and have been approaching that label with caution, but as I do more and more research, I am losing faith in it entirely. I am beginning to become acquainted with industrialized organic foods, which after a little bit of searching, turn out to be coming from factory-farming operations and not the family farms alluded to on the packaging. Eggs and milk are some of the worst offenders (the most often cited example is Walmart’s organic milk). Latest example? Rockview Farms GoodHeart Organics and Trader Joe’s organic milk, my latest attempt at buying local, organic milk. While both adhere to the USDA standards to be certified organic, I learned from the Cornucopia Institute’s Dairy Report & Scorecard that they both scored dismally as far as adhering to the more traditionally-held organic standards.

What are traditional organic standards anyway? It can differ depending on the item, but to give you an idea, Cornucopia defines an outstanding organic dairy operation as one in which the owners have an intimate relationship with their cows, have complete control over their milk and other dairy ingredients, and return 100% of profits back to the farm family. Cornucopia rated the dairies under these criteria: ownership structure (family owned is best), milk supply (from the farm itself rated highest), disclosure of information (top scorers offered 100% disclosure), who they’re certified by, cows on pasture (and how many acres per cow and for how long per year - the more the better), cow health and longevity (low culling is best), replacement animals from organic farms (from that farm itself earned top marks), antibiotics and hormones used (none), farm support oversight (the more oversight the better), and outside dairy ingredients purchased (none, preferably).

Here’s what the survey found about GoodHeart Organics: Ethically Challenged - produce or purchase factory farm milk. Not open enough to participate in this study. "It is marketed by Rockview farms, Inc., which owns some massive industrial-scale farms that produce conventional and organic milk. Since they did not participate in this study we cannot comment on their management practices. We will endeavor again to communicate with this organization and conduct an independent investigation and hope we can secure their cooperation."

Here’s how Trader’s Joe’s brand name organic milk scored: Ethically challenged - private-label, or store-brand, dairy products are sold by grocers or distributors who have the obvious desire of wanting to grow their presence in the organic marketplace. "Unfortunately, there is an inherent limitation in private-label organic products: organic consumers tend to want to know where their food is coming from and how it is produced, and private-label products are anonymous by their nature. As a case in point, although over 80% of the name-brand organic dairy marketers responded to our survey and are rated in this report, not one of the private-label marketers was willing to tell consumers, openly, where its organic milk was purchased." (See the response I received when I tried to find out more information from Trader Joe’s about their brand organic milk on a previous post.) "We were able to determine that these brands were, at the time of our research, buying some or all of their organic milk from factory-farm sources. We conducted our research in this area through interviews with a number of industry sources and through federally maintained records. Many of these grocery chains have very little past experience in marketing organic food. Making organics more convenient and affordable to consumers is a laudable goal. We operate on the assumption that many of these marketing entities were unaware of the five-year-long controversy concerning factory farms producing "organic" milk, and that they entered into contractual agreements in good faith. Some of the inaccurate and misleading claims or images made in their labeling are likely just rhetoric that the factory-farm suppliers of milk passed on to them."

Whether you take the ethical/unethical stance on factory farms (this can be quite subjective as there are those that believe using an animal for food at all as unethical), very few people will deny that factory farms are deeply disturbing. There is a battle raging between the industrialized organic folks and the family farm organic folks, with the large-scale, corporate organic suppliers claiming that they’re filling a genuine need, and the old school organics calling foul over the watering-down of the word “organic.” I have no doubt that this conflict between the two is only going to be growing more vicious as the demand for organic goods continues to rise.

In the meantime, I am aligning myself with the traditional organic crowd as far as milk is concerned. Trader Joe’s brand organic milk (and Rockview Farms that supposedly supplies it) - at least the supplier they use for their San Diego stores - isn’t going to get the job done. My local choices are therefore nil, and I've decided to support Strauss Family Creamery after all. They scored well on the Cornucopia study, and I can purchase their products from the O.B. People's Food Organic Food Store here in San Diego.

And to play fair, I sent both Trader Joe's and Rockview Farms a letter explaining why I would not be purchasing their milk.

[Update: I heard of someone in the bay area who spoke to a Trader Joe's manager about a year ago and was told they receive their brand name organic milk from Strauss Family Creamery. This may be worth checking out for those in that area.]


Anonymous said...

I know only one person in Northern CA that frequently researches products at Trader Joe's, and if she was responsible for this information, I am THRILLED! I'll speak with my TJ's manager this weekend. I buy TJ's organic most of the time because it's economical. Wouldn't it be great if it was from Straus? Thanks again for the wonderful research!


tortuga said...

I am also trying to consume local/organic/ethically raised food but for lots of reasons I don't want to drive all over to achieve this. I've also been making my own cheese which is very sensitive to how the milk is processed. Trader Joes organic milk has been making the best cheese for me which leads me to believe that it is at least minimally processed and therefore probably raised nearby. Though, it still could be more of a factory farm than I would like it is better than the Horizon crap that they ultrapasteurize and ship all over.