Two North Carolina Grocers Split on Organic Approach

March 24th, 2011

Harris Teeter Accused of “Selling-Out” Values of Movement

DURHAM, NC: North Carolina has been a hotbed of the organic farming movement since it started to achieve commercial success in the 1980s. Now that the industry has grown to almost $28 billion of annual sales, it’s fitting that the state is in the center of a simmering nationwide debate.

For almost 10 years, organic dairy farmers, almost exclusively families with modestly scaled operations, averaging about 60 cows each, have been fighting giant “factory farms,” each milking thousands of cows, which they have accused of producing organic milk without following the rigid federal regulations.

“The controversy surrounding factory farms in organic dairy production centers not only on the allegation that they have been violating a law,” said Mark A. Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst for The Cornucopia Institute. “For organic consumers, who are paying a premium, it’s also a question of following ‘the spirit of the law.’”

Whereas confining animals to feedlots or giant buildings has become standard operating practice for conventional livestock producers, organic dairy farmers are required to allow animals to exhibit their natural instinctive behaviors, including providing fresh pasture as a major component of the animals’ feed.

The Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group based in Wisconsin, has spent years studying the organic dairy business, and its website rates all organic brands based on what the organization calls “their ethical approach to milk production.”

“We surveyed all namebrand and private-labels (storebrands) and found that the Harris Teeter supermarket chain was buying from a massive industrial dairy, in desert-like conditions in Texas, that is milking 9000 cows,” stated Kastel. “That’s exactly the kind of agriculture that people investing in organics are trying to get away from.”

The Texas dairy, Natural Prairie, does not market milk under its own label but rather supplies a number of grocery chains around the country. The Cornucopia Institute has questioned whether an operation of that scale, with limited irrigated land, can meet the grazing requirements under the federal law. Cornucopia also has filed a formal legal complaint with the USDA alleging that Natural Prairie is in violation of the standards by bringing conventional cattle onto its operations. The USDA is currently adjudicating the matter.

Harris Teeter officials told Cornucopia they were satisfied with the propriety of their supplier, and, despite the controversy, would continue their relationship.

In contrast, Ingles Markets, another leading regional grocer, has gone out of its way to assure that 100% of its organic milk supply comes from family-scale farmers that rate highly in Cornucopia’s research study and scorecard (available at: www.cornucopia.org).

“A long time present in the grocery business in North Carolina, and the southeast, Ingles obviously takes the values and expectations of their consumers into consideration when sourcing the certified organic food it offers,” affirmed Kastel. In addition to name brands Ingles offers its own organic milk under the Harvest Farms label.

With hundreds of organic farmers, North Carolina ranks number 16th in the nation. In addition to farmers markets and major supermarket chains, that are now carrying a wider variety of organic food based on growing demand, the market was pioneered by a number of statewide specialty cooperative retailers including Weaver Street Market, with three stores in the Chapel Hill area, and Tidal Creek Food Co-op in Wilmington.

“Our members expect organic milk to come from family farms, not factory farms. That’s why we offer organic milk from Organic Valley, a cooperative of small farmers that includes local dairy farmers,” said Ruffin Slater, General Manager of Weaver Street Market in Carrboro.

“Our customers have confidence in our buying standards and know that we will avoid factory farms and will choose to support smaller organic and local farms.” said Craig Harris, General Manager of Tidal Creek.

Although consumers generally first come to organics in search of safer and more nutritious products, Cornucopia says its research indicates there is little price resistance to the premiums paid in organics because shoppers also feel they are simultaneously supporting environmental protection, humane animal husbandry practices and economic-justice through their purchases.

Besides for requiring pasture, organic standards prohibit the use of toxic pesticides, genetic engineering for feed production, and the administration of antibiotics and growth hormones for the animals.

The Cornucopia’s Kastel, who will be in Durham speaking 6:30 PM Monday night at the Rice Diet Program (open to the public), says that according to their research, 90% of name brand organic dairy products are produced with high integrity.

“It’s a shame that some giant farms, and retailers, are willing to ‘game the system’ in order to eke out extra profit,” Kastel added. We hope consumers will pay attention to our scorecard and reward the true farmer-heroes in the organic community and the retailers who support them.”

MORE:

The Cornucopia Institute’s organic dairy scorecard rates approximately 115 dairy brands. It is designed to empower consumers and wholesale buyers so they can make good, discerning decisions in the marketplace: https://www.cornucopia.org/2008/01/dairy-report-and-scorecard/

Cornucopia also recently published a research report, Scrambled Eggs—Separating Factory Farm Egg Production from Authentic Organic Agriculture, also with an accompanying scorecard critiquing organic egg marketers and the farms that supply them.

For additional local interviews, member-owned cooperative groceries that are long leaders in organic retailing, in North Carolina, include:

Hendersonville Community Co-op 715 Old Spartanburg Hwy. Hendersonville NC
Tidal Creek Foods Co-op 5329 Oleander Dr. Wilmington NC
Weaver Street Market – Carrboro 101 E. Weaver St. Carrboro NC
Chatham Marketplace 480 Hillsboro Street, Ste 320 Pittsboro NC
Company Shops Market P.O. Box 152 Elon NC
Deep Roots Market 3728 Spring Garden St. Greensboro NC
Durham Food Co-op 1101 W. Chapel Hill St. Durham NC
French Broad Food Co-op 90 Biltmore Av. Asheville NC
Haywood Road Market 771 Haywood Road Asheville NC
Weaver Street Market -Admin 437 Dimmocks Mill Road, Ste 10 Hillsborough NC
Weaver Street Market – Southern Village 716 Market St Chapel Hill NC
Weaver Street Market 101 E Weaver Str. Carrboro NC
Weaver Street Market 228 Churton St Hillsborough NC

It’s obvious that many cooperative leaders take their jobs very seriously. “A basic part of Deep Roots’ mission is to support and sustain the health of our customers,” said Joel Landau, the cooperative’s general manager in Greensboro. “Accordingly all our fresh produce is grown organically….we avoid chemical ingredients and manufacturing processes that are known to have adverse health consequences.”

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