Organic industry at odds over rating of dairy products

By Lorraine Heller

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Organic food, Agriculture

Two groups representing organic farmers are at loggerheads over the
release of a new report that claims to rate the nation's organic
dairy brands and products.

The report is due to be issued by the Cornucopia Institute, an agricultural policy research group that supports family-scale farmers.

Cornucopia says its study rates organic dairy brands based on their adherence to accepted ethical practices and conduct, and aims to "help discerning consumers and wholesale buyers make better and informed judgments about comparative on-farm production practices."

But the nation's Organic Trade Association (OTA) says that the manner in which information was gathered for the report was "not scientific,"​ and results may therefore be misleading.

Cornucopia's report is based on responses to a survey sent out to organic dairy farmers.

However, OTA has expressed concern over a sentence in the covering letter sent along with this survey, which states that "any firm(s) not participating will be indicated in the survey results, and that will likely taint the credibility of the organization(s)."

According to the OTA, "this type of threat is counter to good research practice, and renders the results invalid. Furthermore, such tactics do not serve the interests of customers, the organic community or farmers themselves."

For its part, Cornucopia says the report "is a by-product of a five-year controversy that has been smoldering within the organic industry,"​ and has accused the OTA of "backroom dealings"​ that have weakened federal organic regulations to the benefit of large corporations.

"Since the late 1990s a handful of large industrial-scale dairy operations, with 2000-6000 animals in factory-farm conditions, have started producing milk sold as 'organic.' Among other serious breaches these dairies are accused of is confining their animals rather than grazing on pasture."

Cornucopia last year filed several complaints with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), asking for certain farms to be investigated. These included farms owned by Dean Foods and Aurora Organic Dairy.

According to Mark Kastel, Cornucopia's senior farm policy analyst, these large-scale farms may be violating national organic standards, conclusions drawn through the use of satellite photographs and interviews with former and current employees.

But the USDA closed all but the last complaint files with no investigation and no explanation, said Kastel, adding that Cornucopia is currently considering legal action against the USDA, with the aim of forcing these investigations.

However, according to the USDA, "Cornucopia's initial allegations were found to be without substance in light of the National Organic Program pasture regulations as they are currently written. The last allegation was not related to dairy pasturing and is currently being investigated."

But Helen Keyes, a Cornucopia board member, says that"even though there have been numerous meetings and thousands of letters and e-mails from organic farmers and consumers requesting that the USDA clamp down on these factory farms, as well as surveys indicating overwhelming support from organic dairy farmers for enforcement actions against those who are scoffing at federal organic law, the USDA have done nothing to date."

"This is not a debate of small farmers versus big farmers. It's ethical farmers versus farmers that are willing to compensate the ethics of organic farming,"​ Kastel told FoodNavigator-USA.com.

"Some farmers are going to extra effort, many have lower herd production because of organic constraints, and they are placed at a competitive disadvantage,"​ he added.

"We hope this report, and our web-based rating tool, will help organic consumers to 'vote in the marketplace' for brands that truly represent organic ethics, not just marketing hype."

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