October 2008 Issue

Got Organic?
By David Yeager
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 10 No. 10 P. 60

Is your bottle labeled organic truly organic? The industry has seen violators, but most companies take pride in their certification and follow the regulations stringently when it comes to producing organic milk.

Bad apples usually get a lot of publicity. In the case of Promiseland Livestock, however, the culprit was milk—or rather the way the milk was produced.

On June 4, the USDA filed a formal complaint against Promiseland, a large organic producer with 22,000 head including 12,000 dairy heifers, and its owner/manager Anthony J. Zeman alleging willful violations of the federal Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 and the USDA National Organic Program. The company was cited for refusing to provide documentation of its organic operation, specifically in regard to dealings with Aurora Organic Dairy, which produces private label milk for large chains such as Wal-Mart, Costco, and Safeway, and received a two-year suspension of its organic certificate. The suspension is currently on hold pending an administrative court hearing.

The Organic Foods Production Act gave the USDA the authority to regulate the organic industry, and the National Organic Program, which the USDA describes as a marketing program, certifies that food is produced using organic practices. Organic business is growing at about 20% a year in the United States, so it’s no surprise that more companies, particularly large ones, are trying to gain a foothold in the industry. The Promiseland ruling would seem to indicate that the USDA is providing adequate oversight, but many industry watchers feel that the penalties should deter large operations to a greater degree.

“If they find a violation, it’s a question of how hard they want to come down on it,” says Joe Mendelson, the legal director of the Center for Food Safety. “And this administration is more inclined to not go after bigger players.”

Mark Kastel, cofounder of the Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group, agrees. Discussing a 2007 ruling against Aurora Organic Dairy, he says, “The USDA found that they had willfully violated the law in 14 different respects—among them, that they were selling milk labeled as organic that didn’t qualify to use that label. And the Bush administration officials at the USDA let this $100 million company off with just a one-year probation. Other examples of willful cheating have caused companies or individual farmers to lose their right to engage in organic commerce.”

Organic milk comprises 4% to 6% of total milk sales, but its popularity is growing. “Every time a farmer switches to organics or a consumer switches to an organic diet, these [large corporations] are the companies that are losing the market,” says Kastel. “So there are economic forces that are threatened by [organics], and that’s just a reality we have to deal with.”

“And I wish I could make this a partisan argument,” he adds, “but the USDA has been soiled by this intimate relationship between corporate agriculture and our public servants for too long, including under Democratic administrations.”

“Consumers who are interested in these important issues need to stay informed and voice their informed interest to policy leaders and political forces besides voting with their dollars for food systems which can be better for the environment and their nutrition,” says Paul Hepperly, the research director of the Rodale Institute in Kutztown, Pa.

Does Size Matter?
Cows are herbivores. If left to their own devices, they prefer to wander on pasture, eating grass and ruminating. Modern, conventional dairies usually confine cows to crowded feedlots. Conventional feed consists of grain (plant seeds), forage (green, cut, or dried whole plants), which is what cows are designed to digest, and a protein supplement that may contain animal by-products. One of the key factors in organic dairy production is that the cows are supposed to have access to pasture. What constitutes access to pasture, however, seems to be a point of contention.

“USDA has taken the position of saying, ‘We don’t have information about what access to pasture means,’ even though they wrote the regulations,” says Mendelson. “There’s been a big push within a lot of the small dairy producers we work with and some of the larger dairy producers, all to a standard about pasture that animals should be out there [for the entire growing season, but] for at least 120 days minimum a year. And I think that’s the standard that just about all of the certifiers are recognizing.”

The USDA also does not specify how large an organic dairy can be, but Kastel says that doesn’t mean there are no limits. “There’s nothing in there that says you can’t milk more than 500 cows or 1,000 cows or 50,000 cows. But if the law is enforced, the law is what we call scale limiting.”

Rainfall and grassland are significant determinants of how large an organic dairy can be. “Depending on how much grass grows in your part of the country, I don’t think you could milk any more cows than you could feed on that grass. They get their nutrition from it,” says Jim Goodman, an organic dairy farmer and activist in Wisconsin with a herd of 45 cows. “Plus the fact that if you’ve got 2,000 cows, it’s going to take a long time for them to walk from the pasture to the barn just because you’ve got to have a lot of big pastures.” A conventional farm of 2,000 cows is big, but by organic standards, it’s huge.

The need for ample pasture to meet the demands that the cows put on the land and the time required to walk the cows from the pasture to the barn are big reasons why large dairies arouse suspicions about whether they’re truly organic. “There are some farms, some of our members in California, that are pushing 1,000 cows, but it’s in an area where it rains 40 inches a year, not 3 inches a year like some of these giant dairies in the desert,” says Kastel. “So, without a doubt, there is a number, and if I was going to use a safe number, it would probably be in the 500 to 1,000 range. There are some exceptional managers that can do it, and over and above that, we wouldn’t say you couldn’t do it, but I’m from Missouri, you have to show me.”

Show Me
So what does it mean to have an organic farm?

“If you’re growing crops, they want to make sure you’re not using any chemicals or chemical fertilizers or GM [genetically modified] seed, treated seed. They want to make sure that you, in your livestock production, aren’t using antibiotics and that you actually know how to keep animals healthy without drugs. No growth hormones,” says Goodman. “Basically, they send the inspector out to kind of monitor your whole system because it has to be a system.” Every farm has to have a field plan. Farmers have to document in detail how they grow their crops and how they feed and maintain their animals. This documentation must be available to inspectors.

The inspectors work for certification agencies accredited by the USDA; many belong to the International Organic Inspectors Association. “And then you actually have another organization that actually inspects the inspections. So that’s called third-person verification,” says Hepperly.

“So it’s not like there’s an ability, for instance, of the inspector to certify a farm. The inspector just checks the records and makes sure that the records and what goes through the inspecting agency is something that can be used for them to make a determination. It is a little bit obscure, but these things are built in to give veracity and [ensure] that there isn’t a lot of inside dealing.”

And there is general agreement that the system works. “Consumers in general should have confidence, not just in milk and dairy products, but in all organic products, that there is wide compliance with the law, that these organizations, although they’re large, they’re aberrations,” says Kastel. “From all the research that we do, farmers are widely adhering to the standards. They understand them, and they’re adhering not just to the letter of the law but the spirit of the law.”

Hepperly adds, “I’d say that, actually, organic agriculture is the only area where the producers have invited standards in without them being imposed upon them after problems.”

A Higher Authority
Although the USDA is charged with regulating the organic industry, it does not address organic food safety or nutrition. And the American Dietetic Association doesn’t have an official position on organics either. But there is a growing body of evidence that organic food offers health benefits.

“Some of the studies I’ve seen indicate that vitamin C is significantly higher and consistently higher in organically produced plants compared to conventionally produced plants,” says Meredith Niles, the Cool Foods Campaign coordinator at the Center for Food Safety. “And at the same time, nitrates are higher in conventionally produced plants vs. organically produced plants. And this is something that is probably to be expected, as you have increased nitrates from synthetic fertilizers used in conventional production.”

Niles also notes that recent studies from the United Kingdom show that organic dairy products differ from conventional dairy products in important ways. “Some studies that just came out recently in the U.K. indicate that with animal foods, especially dairy animals, that pastured dairy and organic dairy have higher rates of good fatty acids, including omega-3s … and linolenic acids, in their milk than conventional dairy,” she says. And a study from Newcastle University showed higher levels of conjugated linoleic acids as well.

“All these components have been measured under both organic and conventional dairy management systems suggesting organic milk products can be superior contributors to these important dietary component requirements,” says Hepperly. “[In addition,] organic dairy can reduce consumer exposure to hormones, genetically modified products, antibiotics, and agrichemicals common in conventional dairy operations.”

Kastel says organic dairy products are often the entry point for families trying organics.
“And it’s driven by their children. As their children kind of age out of formula or breast-feeding, they’re looking for a more nutritious and what’s perceived to be a safer product.”

He adds that people are generally willing to pay more for organics because they perceive them as a healthier, environmentally friendly option. “So consumers are weighing the pros and cons and deciding to support something even though there’s a premium price associated with it,” he says. “It’s not even like ‘I’m buying a Chevy vs. a Ford because I think it’s better. I’m buying a brand that I know I’m paying a 10% to 30% premium for, and I’m doing it because I think there’s value there for my family.’”

These consumers are the reason why the organic industry is so closely scrutinized. “We like to say that there’s a higher authority in the United States than the USDA,” says Kastel, “and that’s the organic consumer.”

So how can consumers exercise this authority? One way is to ask questions. Organic produce at a grocery store has to have a label, but produce at a farmer’s market may or may not be organic. Talk to the farmers and ask them about what they do. If their practices don’t seem to follow organic principles, they probably aren’t organic. “With a few key investigative questions, usually you can ferret those people out,” says Hepperly.

Other good sources of information are cooperative grocery stores. “The gold standard in organic retailing are the nation’s member-owned cooperative grocery stores, and they range anywhere from fairly modest storefronts in little towns in Minnesota to PCC Natural Markets in Seattle that have, I think, nine stores, and they do well over $100 million dollars worth of business,” says Kastel. “These are folks that have on staff extremely knowledgeable buyers and managers, and so they, in essence, are vetting the organic food you buy.” However, there are only about 275 such stores in the United States.

“And certainly I think you can look for certifiers, too,” says Mendelson. “Each product has to have who the certifier is, and you can get information about who the certifier is online or through USDA and [decide whether that certifier will do a good job.] And you can just call up the companies, too, and find out what their position is on pasture and where they’re getting their milk.” Mendelson also cites the Cornucopia Institute’s Dairy
Report and Scorecard.

Perhaps the surest way to check farming practices, though, is to buy from local farms. In fact, some small farms have begun to direct market their products to show that they’re not only meeting organic standards but exceeding them. “One of the greatest models of this kind … is what is called community-supported agriculture, where you’ll basically form a sort of co-op and actually, the people that are members have influence in how the farming goes and participate like shareholders,” says Hepperly. “And in that type of situation, if the group says, ‘Well, I want this to be local and organic and these are the things that I want,’ then you kind of get them. So that’s almost a little bit beyond certified organic. You also restore the idea that it’s better to have things done locally and to have power into the democracy of food production.”

“The closer you are to the producer itself and the closer relationship you have, you know they’re certified, you know there’s certification,” says Mendelson. “You’re going to have assurances and that’s true about food purchases as a whole, for food safety or whatever reason you’re purchasing.”

“Do you know exactly what’s going on in California?” asks Hepperly. “I don’t. But I do know what’s going on in my own yard, and I do know what’s going on if I have a relationship with a farmer that I want to support anyway.”

— David Yeager is an editorial assistant at Today’s Dietitian.

Center for Food Safety’s Cool Foods Campaign: www.coolfoodscampaign.org

Cornucopia Institute: www.cornucopia.org

Cornucopia Institute’s Dairy Report and Scorecard: www.cornucopia.org/dairysurvey/index.html

International Organic Inspectors Association: www.ioia.net

Rodale Institute: www.rodaleinstitute.org

USDA National Organic Program: www.ams.usda.gov/nop

USDA Ruling on Promiseland Livestock, LLC:www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/