The Truth Behind the Organic Dairy Label

[This article was previously published in the winter issue of The Cultivator, Cornucopia’s quarterly newsletter.]

by Marie Burcham, JD
Farm and Food Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute

Source: Adobe Stock

Scheduled for release in early 2017, The Cornucopia Institute will publish an updated organic dairy report and associated organic brand scorecard.

These releases will provide valuable information for consumers and wholesale buyers looking for the best – and avoiding the worst – in organic dairy.

Corruption in the organic dairy sector was the first issue that Cornucopia focused on after industrial agriculture pushed its way into the business.

When Cornucopia found “organic” dairy cows living in factory-farm conditions, their lives shortened from being pushed into high production and without adequate time on pasture, we saw a clear need for action.

Determined to bring to light the economic injustice perpetuated by these industrialized dairies, Cornucopia jumped into the fight. Fourteen years later that fight continues.

Several distinct approaches to dairy production exist in the organic sector. Some dairy farmers embrace the use of pasture forage as a major, or even exclusive, part of their cows’ diet.

On the other end of the spectrum, producers favor practices almost identical to conventional, industrial-scale dairy production. These large-scale dairies often feed large amounts of grain and raise the cattle in confinement for most of their lives.

Despite these dramatic differences, all organic dairy producers and their certifiers claim to be following the same federal organic standards.

The reality is that administration of the regulations varies widely, based on differing interpretations, working definitions, and applications of the standards by certifiers.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) continues to look the other way, condoning these illegalities.

The updated dairy report and scorecard expose these differences in production and guide consumers to the very best brands.

In the scorecard, Cornucopia showcases ethical dairy brands that are worthy of buyers’ support. The scorecard is based on responses to questionnaires Cornucopia collects from brand managers, along with compliance investigations.

In this update, the scorecard will cover new brands and updated scoring criteria to highlight the best “beyond organic” practices.

The scorecard will also help consumers find products with the specific qualities they desire, such as 100% grass-fed dairy, or dairy from cows fed a soy-free ration. Please look for a sneak preview of the top brands this December.

Ratings are not solely based on answers to the questionnaire.

Cornucopia also incorporated unannounced site inspections, aerial photography, satellite imagery, and extensive industry interviews into the scoring process.

Brands will achieve scores ranging from “one cow” through “five cows,” based on their milk production or procurement practices.

Transparency is valued in the scoring mechanism, because transparency is the hallmark of the organic movement.

The new scorecard will be mobile-friendly for those that like to analyze their choices and shop at the same time. As with the current version, the new scorecard will be updated on a continual basis.

In the past our scorecard has worked as a marketing tool for small, possibly unheard-of brands who produce ethical products. There is no charge for farmers and marketers to participate in our ratings program.

Apart from the web-based scorecard, the comprehensive report narrative gives a more in-depth look at the organic dairy industry today.

Cornucopia’s first dairy report, “Maintaining Integrity of Organic Milk,” gave a scathing look into the industrial takeover in organic dairy.

Unfortunately, aided and abetted by industry-friendly USDA regulators, that takeover continues to evolve.

The new report discusses both the changing market and practices within the organic dairy sector – industrial organics pushing both the legal and ethical boundaries of the market.

In part, our research covers the USDA’s poor enforcement of the organic standards. Cornucopia spearheaded the fight to get meaningful pasturing back into organic dairy around the time the first report was published in 2006.

The new report details the current, lax regulatory climate for pasturing, the allowance of conventional replacement animals, and other important issues in the industry.

Part of Cornucopia’s goal with this research is to protect the livelihoods of ethical family-scale organic farmers who are being placed at a competitive disadvantage. To preserve the integrity of the organic label, we need to change these trends.

The scorecard will assist with educating purchasers to reward the individual farms, cooperatives, and corporations that are doing good work.

The highly rated dairy brands have made the investments to both exceed the minimum legal bar for what the organic label represents and meet the evolving expectations of organic dairy customers.

Ultimately, both the report and scorecard highlight the most important facet of the organic dairy industry: consumer choice.

Cornucopia hopes that our research and work in dairy will empower informed buyers who are passionate about their food.

With many of the ethical organic dairy farmers facing downward pricing pressure from increased industrialization, it is more important now than ever to discourage practices that do not mesh with organic consumer expectations and the integrity of the organic label.

Sneak Preview: The Best Dairy Brands in the Country

How do consumers find the very best milk, from family-scale farms, where cows often have names, not numbers? Where farmers promote the “natural instinctive behavior” of all animals, maximizing their quality of life and time spent living on pasture?

The USDA continues to refuse to enforce the law requiring legitimate grazing for organic livestock. Their own investigators have found Aurora and Shamrock factory dairies in “willful” violation of the organic standards — but both companies are still operating!

Cornucopia will help you choose the very best for your family, while voting in the marketplace to support the true heroes in the organic movement.

Here is a selection of some of the top-rated brands that will be featured in our newly updated dairy report and scorecard, to be published after the first of the year:

Berle Farm – Hoosick, NY
Butterworks Farm – Westfield, VT
Chase Hill farm – Warwick, MA
Coonridge Goat Dairy – Pie Town, NM
Crystal Ball Farm – Osceola, WI
Englebert Farms – Nichols, NY
Fresh Breeze Dairy – Lynden, WA
Hawthorne Valley Farm – Ghent, NY
Radiance Dairy – Fairfield, IA
Kimball Brook Farm – N. Ferrisburgh, VT
Organic Pastures Dairy Co. – Fresno, CA
Paradise Springs Farm – Victor, ID
Pride and Joy Dairy – Granger, WA
Seven Stars Farm – Pheonixville, PA
SpringWood Organic Farm – Kinzers, PA
Thistle Hill Farm – North Pomfret, VT
Working Cows Dairy – Slocomb, AL

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