What Organic Really Means

The Cornucopia Institute Is Talking About Another Revolution

While it wasn’t talked all that much outside of the dairy booths at Expo West, The Cornucopia Institute’s organic dairy ratings may be the start of the most important shift in the industry since ex White Wave founder Steve Demos decided to put soymilk in the dairy case.

Cornucopia is a progressive farm and food policy research group based in Wisconsin dedicated to promoting small family farms and organic agriculture. The Institute sent a survey the nation’s 70 or so organic dairy processors and marketers in order to rate organic dairy brands. The results have made some folks kick up their heels, and others, notably the Organic Trade Association calling the effort unwise, and worse.

Large-scale confinement dairies providing much of the milk for national and private label brands received low ratings while small grazing dairies, mostly family farms that sell to smaller or Cooperative Dairies (including nationally distributed Organic Valley) were rated high.

Thus it won’t a surprise folks Dean Foods’ Horizon Organic brand, as well as private label brands from both mainstream and natural stores, were at the bottom of the ratings pile.

The ratings attempt, in Cornucopia’s words, to measure corporate behavior in terms of organic integrity and to “empower consumers and wholesale buyers in the marketplace by rating organic dairy brands based on their adherence to accepted ethical practices and conduct.”

The key words above are ‘accepted’ and ‘ethical’. Notably not everyone is pleased with their definitions. Yes, NBN is excited about expanding the discussion and empowering wholesale buyers and retail consumers to make more informed choices.

But we are also concerned that a war over what is ‘organic’, might likely turn off consumers from entering, or continuing to stay in the organic marketplace. In other words does the argument my organic is better than your organic merely serve the needs of big agribusiness which would love nothing more than organic foods to suffer from consumer confusion and cynicism?

Might a humane label, like those recently added to eggs, or a family farmed label add more value to educating buyers?

To Mark Kastel at Cornucopia the answer is a resounding NO. He told me it is a simply matter of integrity. The brands that rated low use confinement methods that are inconsistent with organic farming. Over the phone Kastel read from a label from a Woodstock Farms (United Natural Foods private label brand) item. Listening to him I pictured something like a a farm from the television show Little House on the Prairie. In other words a small farm with a hard working family, the American farmer pictured in those TV shows and old movies and what we like to believe whom we are supporting when buying organic.

In reality the product was produced by Aurora Dairy, (founded by Horizon Dairy founder Mark Retzloff) a large corporate entity, milking 4000-5000 cows, using confinement methods that, in Kastel’s view, are very different from what the consumer considers truly organic

The Organic Trade Association which has powerfully distanced itself from Cornucopia, rejected their ratings. In a press release the OTA stated that a “small group in the Midwest released today a ‘survey’ purporting to rank organic dairy production practices. It is OTA’s understanding that this survey was not performed using accepted scientific research practices, and thus lacks rigor. The results, therefore, do not portray an accurate picture of today’s organic dairy producers.”

The OTA remains unconcerned with the role of agribusiness and the methods of farming scale,and is focused solely with USDA organic standards as the proper measure of what constitutes an organic product.

While some might dismiss Kastel and the folks supporting Cornucopia as anachronistic anti-corporate people, that isn’t true. In an article in Cooperative Grocer, Kastel laud’s H.J. Heinz’ organic ketchup efforts, noting that Heinz leadership has expanded organic to the “rank and file” consumer and furthermore that. Heinz, the $8.9 billion giant, does not rely on “importing concentrated tomato products,” and but purchases fresh tomatoes “grown on California farms and certified by Oregon Tilth, a certifier of high integrity—and they are willing to put their corporate name behind their practices unlike some others, like Dean Foods.”

NBN will be visiting this issue, in depth, including a look at the response to Cornucopia’s position from various early leaders in the organic movement as well from retailers, too. In addition we’ll be looking at whether companies who import from overseas are providing any benefits to farmers there.

Too see the full ratings and learn more about the Cornucopia Institute visit the Institute’s website. 

For the full text of Organic Trade Association’s response go here.

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