(Beyond Pesticides) A report released this summer by the nonprofit group The Cornucopia Institute helps consumers avoid ‘factory farmed’ dairy products in light of disturbing revelations uncovered in a 2017 Washington Post investigation of major organic brands. The report, The Industrialization of Organic Dairy, traces the broken promises of many major dairy companies and provides a scorecard enabling consumers to review brands for their overall sustainability and adherence to truly organic standards.

“With the USDA’s failure to protect ethical industry participants and consumers from outright fraud, using our Organic Dairy Scorecard is a way for organic stakeholders to take the law into their own hands,” said Mark A. Kastel, codirector and senior farm policy analyst of Cornucopia, on the group’s website. “In every market and product category, consumers can vote in front of the dairy case to economically support authentic organic farmers while simultaneously protecting their families.”

The Washington Post’s 2017 report found that Aurora Organic Dairy, a major milk supplier for big box retailers like Walmart and Safeway, is producing milk that was less nutrient dense compared to small-scale organic family farms. Information on nutritional deficits in this milk was preceded by an earlier 2014 Cornucopia Institute report featuring aerial photographs of industrial confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs, or factory farms). While certified organic, the farms in the photos appeared indistinguishable from conventional factory farming operations, with some ‘organic’ dairies holding 10,000-20,000 cattle. At the time, Aurora Dairy, which was photographed as part of 2014 report, told reporters, “A single photo doesn’t really tell us anything about a farm and its practices.” The subsequent Washington Post report found that the living conditions indicated by the photos did result in cows producing nutritionally deficient milk.

Cornucopia notes that while these investigative reports finally brought USDA interest in these unethical practices during the years of the Obama administration, regulators gave the dairy every opportunity to correct any issues by making an appointment before reviewing the farm’s practices. “Whoever heard of a law enforcement agency calling up a suspected meth lab and setting up a mutually convenient appointment to carry out a search?” said Francis Thicke, a longtime certified organic dairy farmer from Fairfield, Iowa and a former Obama-era appointee to the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), in a Cornucopia Institute press release.

The group’s scorecard works off of a point system addressing everything from a brand’s ownership structure, to milk supplier, how often cows are milked, the health and longevity of a farm’s cattle, whether cows are grass fed, antibiotic and hormone usage, and more. These data are distilled into a ranking between 0 to 5 ‘cows’, with 5 cows being top-rated as ‘Beyond Organic’ and 0 cows indicating no response to the organization’s questionnaire and the likelihood of poor practices. While many of the 5-cow brands are produced by small-scale family farms, some nationwide dairy producers, such as Maple Hill Creamery, made the list. Notably, some larger brands, such as Organic Valley, Liberte, Annie’s HomeGrown, and Helios Kefir, all scored 4 cows. In general, the organization warned individuals against purchasing store branded products such as Trader Joe’s store-brand organic milk. The organization notes, “Even though none of the one cow rated brands responded to our survey request, 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.”

Consumers are encouraged to review the scorecard for their current dairy purchases and consider the ability to vote with your food dollars by supporting more ethical, sustainable, and transparent brands.  For more information on why it is so important to not only protect, but strengthen the organic label, see Beyond Pesticides Keeping Organic Strong webpage.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

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