Contact: Mark Kastel, 608-625-2000

CORNUCOPIA, WI: The Organic Trade Association (OTA) is seeking to suppress the release of a new report rating the nation’s organic dairy brands and products. The report will soon be issued by The Cornucopia Institute, an agricultural policy research group that supports family-scale farmers.

The OTA’s “campaign of intimidation” comes less than six months after the organic business group was widely condemned for orchestrating a secret, back-door deal in Congress that was viewed by many in the organic community as weakening federal organic regulations to the benefit of large corporations. Now OTA has once again exposed themselves to widespread criticism by attacking one of the nation’s preeminent corporate and governmental watchdogs that is protecting organic food and farming.

The report, according to The Cornucopia Institute, is designed to “empower consumers and wholesale buyers in the marketplace” by rating organic dairy brands based on their adherence to accepted ethical practices and conduct.

Last week the OTA sent a special letter to members of The Cornucopia Institute’s Board of Directors attempting to convince them to not release the dairy products rating report. The letter suggested that the report—which the OTA has not seen—will sow a seed of “distrust in organic farming and organic products” and noted that OTA is “opposed to tactics that cast doubt on the work of certified organic farms.” After the OTA sent their letter to the Cornucopia Board, they then released the letter to the public and strategic calls have been placed to the news media in an effort to discredit the Institute’s work.

“This report is a by-product of a five-year controversy that has been smoldering within the organic industry,” according to Mark A. Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst for the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute. 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 confining their animals rather than grazing on pasture.

“Even though there have been numerous meetings and thousands of letters and e-mails from organic farmers and consumers requesting that the United States Department of Agriculture 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,” said Helen Keyes, a Cornucopia board member and certified organic livestock producer. “This puts ethical organic farmers at a competitive disadvantage.”

The Cornucopia Institute has said that although they will continue to work with the USDA, they are “appealing to a higher authority”—the organic consumer. According to Kastel, “One way that many organic consumers justify the higher prices for organic food is their support for a more ecological farming model, more humane animal husbandry practices, and a social/economic justice movement that supports family-scale farmers. 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.”

The Organic Trade Association started as an industry umbrella group that originally included farmer and consumer members in addition to manufacturers. However, since hiring high-powered lobbyists in Washington and raising their lowest dues levels to $300 (larger corporations contribute tens of thousands of dollars), many of their smaller long-time members have been forced out, and the association is now dominated by major agribusiness corporations that have purchased familiar organic name brands in their bid to capture a piece of the rapidly growing organic food market.

“Since their backroom dealings in Washington became public last fall, a number of OTA’s former business members have joined The Cornucopia Institute,” said Meg Hannah, the Cornucopia’s President. “Our new business members join with over 500 individual members, mostly farmers, who understand that the economic health of the organic marketplace depends on maintaining high organic integrity,”Hannah added. “Don’t these large corporations and their lobbyists understand that playing ‘fast and loose’ with the organic standards has the potential to kill the golden goose”?

At least two powerful OTA members, Dean Foods and the Aurora Organic Dairy, have been the subject of a series of legal complaints concerning livestock management practices on the huge factory farms they operate. Dean Foods now owns the Horizon brand of organic milk, and Aurora packages private label milk for chains such as Costco, Safeway, and Wild Oats.

“After some delay we are pleased that the USDA is now investigating, in earnest, at least two of the four complaints we have filed against these large industrial dairies that are ‘gaming the system,” said Kastel. “Although we are still considering taking legal action forcing the USDA to investigate all complaints against these suspect organic farms, our forthcoming report will help consumers reward the true heroes of organic farming, in the marketplace, with its information detailing the ethical practices of all organic dairy marketers.”

The good news contained in Cornucopia’s report is that the group’s research indicates that the vast majority of organic dairy brands contain milk from family-sized farms that share the consumer’s conviction that organic agriculture is about more than marketing hype.

“The organic marketplace wasn’t built by lobbyists and trade groups, it was built through a loving collaboration between organic farmers and consumers who truly respect their hard work,” Kastel stated. “I’m happy to confirm that the majority of organic products are of high integrity, and working together, the organic community will succeed in maintaining more than just the business value of organically produced food.”

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