USDA Says Some Organic Milk Is A Rip-Off

If you’re going to pay twice as much for milk because you like the idea that the cows have a yard to play in—that’s your business—but you’d better be getting what you pay for.

According to the USDA one “organic” milk producer that supplies milk to Wal-Mart, Costco, Target and Safeway has been cutting corners.

From Fortune:

Aurora Organic Daily, a private company based in Boulder, Colorado, says it never broke any rules. But Aurora, which operates large-scale organic farms in Colorado and Texas, signed a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, promising to clean up its act.

“We’re doing a transformation – cows reduced, pasture increased, all animals organic from birth and a significantly increased commitment to research,” says Clark Driftmier, vice president of marketing at Aurora.

An Aurora farm in Plattsville, Colorado, for example, which once had as many as 4,200 cows, will reduce that number to 1,250, even as most of the farm’s buildings and paddocks are torn down to create more pasture land.

The Cornucopia Institute, a tiny group that fights to prevent companies from trading unfairly on the green-sounding label of “organic”, had this to say:

“These were blatant violations,” says Mark Kastel [spokesperson]. “What did they think, that we’d just fallen off the turnip truck? It was almost insulting.”

According to the USDA, the milk producer in question had racked up a bunch of violations including “failing to provide cows with access to pasture, introducing conventional dairy cows into organic milk production too quickly, buying non-organic bedding for its cows and not keeping proper records.”

An organic milk ripoff [Fortune]

Comments

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  1. B says:

    I thought organic milk meant no hormones/additives/etc, and had nothing to do with ethically treating the cows.

  2. lincolnparadox says:

    Mark Kastel is a moron, turnips are taproots. They grow underground, not on trees. Sheesh. You figure all of the vegans at The Cornucopia Institute would have corrected him.

    As far as I’m concerned, organic foods have a place in the market. They’re like glacial/iceberg bottled water, or goji berry juice. It’s trendy, it’s high quality, and you feel like you’re helping out somehow.

    I will be honest, organic milk tastes fantastic. But, when you consider that you’re getting about 10-50% yield from organic agriculture, you have to make a choice: have happy cows or feed 1 to 9 more people?

    I’d rather share 9 glasses of Hormone Harry’s Whole Milk, than suck down 1 glass on my own.

  3. Trai_Dep says:

    hehe. I like the fact that an organic watchdog group uses “turnip truck”. That is all.

    Oh, shouldn’t someone have to face crippling fines for false advertising?

  4. Crazytree says:

    non-organic bedding?

    people should be in prison for this!

  5. rmz says:

    @lincolnparadox: I will be honest, organic milk tastes fantastic.

    It may be organic, but it’s still pasteurized, though. I don’t care if Bessy is fed only naturally hand-harvested pampered hippie grass with a side of caviar, the pasteurization process is still going to kill off most of what tastes so good :(

    But, I guess not everybody likes rolling the dice disease-wise when they sit down for breakfast, so ehh.

  6. ADM says:

    you definitely have to do your research if you want to be an ethical consumer. a friend of mine who spent some time looking into it told me that the brands “stonyfield farms” and “organic valley” treat their cows well, so i just operated on that assumption, and only bought those two brands back when i was drinking milk. stonyfield is easy to find, so that’s good.

  7. EvilSquirrel says:

    @lincolnparadox: I will be honest, organic milk tastes fantastic.

    Most of the organic milk they sell around me is that crappy ultra-pasteurized stuff from Horizon that is just about shelf stable.

  8. Ulm says:

    @B:

    ‘Organic’ has interesting connotations since the USDA officially defined the terms. It includes things like never giving antibiotics, even when a cow is not in production, all biological items that come into contact with cattle being organic themselves, land being ‘certified organic’, etc.

    What it generally means is that it is a huge hassle using the ‘organic’ tag, and it tends to be overkill. I have dairy cattle (well, two anyway), and if one of them gets sick, I will treat her. However, once that happens she can no longer be considered ‘organic’, and in those cases in an organic dairy the cow is generally removed from service, aka eaten (unless she’s especially valuable breeding stock).

    Unless you are an ideologue, mostly people don’t want Organic(tm) organic. They want ‘food that hasn’t messed with’, with hormones, unrestrained antibiotic use (which generally doesn’t happen in dairy, btw), etc. I tend to call that ‘naturally raised’. Organic(tm) tends to set the bar WAY too high for most small producers.

    One other weird thing… most dairy cows that are ‘in production’ don’t really enjoy being in pastures… they’re VERY social animals who would rather loaf around the barn where it’s cool, eating all the silage, corn, and/or high protein hay they can get. If they fill up on normal grass, they get awfully hungry, because of their protein requirements.

    I don’t think organic dairies have any ‘happier’ cows. In a well run dairy (and yes, there are plenty of ‘badly run ones’), cows tend to be pretty happy already.

  9. thepounder says:

    “What did they think, that we’d just fallen off the turnip truck? It was almost insulting.”

    Nice… What’s really insulting is that this guy wants to be taken seriously. “Non-organic” bedding is somehow a violation? I can hear it now, “Well, you heard ‘em Joe, remove the Serta Perfect Sleepers from the cows’ stalls… we need us some ‘organic’ bedding.”

    I’d be interested to hear what this bedding was and if it affected the curvature of the cows’ spines.

    My apologies; I just don’t “get” the whole organic fad.

  10. thepounder says:

    @thepounder: I take it partly back… I’d prefer to not have fruit and veggies that were sprayed with all-chemical pesticides… but DDT might be tasty, so who knows.

  11. stubblyhead says:

    According to the USDA one “organic” milk producer that supplies milk to Wal-Mart, Costco, Target and Safeway has been cutting corners.
    Interesting, all of the Safeways here have Horizon and the organic store brand. Either of those could be a label for this company though, I admit I’ve never checked the carton.

    @lincolnparadox: who said anything about turnips growing on trees? did you perhaps misread that as “turnip trunk?”

  12. asherchang says:

    @lincolnparadox: wow, the word “truck” denotes a tree?

  13. asherchang says:

    @Ulm: ok, but would a cow prefer living in a factory farm?

  14. Chicago7 says:

    @thepounder:

    I think the cows EAT their bedding, that may be the problem.

    I haven’t heard that turnip truck line since I lived in North Dakota, and that’s a LOOOOONNG time ago – it made me giggle.

  15. medief says:

    I remember having a job one summer where I had to clean up a lot of organic bedding.

  16. snwbrder0721 says:

    I’ve driven past an Aurora dairy in Northern Colorado dozens of times, I’d have to say there isn’t anything particularly organic looking going on there. There are, however numerous large signs that read “Organic Dairy – Keep out” and fences surrounding it like a compound, so I guess they really want to keep the non-organic stuff out.

    This being said, I also have th pleasure of living in Greeley, CO which is home to some of Swift & Co.’s largest feedlots and those are absolutely disgusting compared to Aurora. At Swift there’s just thousands of cows practically on top of each other spending days standing in manure until they reach the meatpacking plant. So compared to the standard factory farm, I’d say Aurora’s doing pretty well. At least they have some pastures around their barns and they actually try to make the place look decent.

  17. grebby says:

    Have you bought milk lately? Organic is maybe 25% more than the rBST cocktail that is regular milk. How much more would you pay if it means you don’t get breast/prostate/colon cancer?

    Besides, organic skim has more flavor than non-organic 2% and lasts several weeks longer in the refrigerator.

  18. coss3n says:

    @rmz: Rolling the dice? People who drink unpasteurized milk *will* get sick sooner or later. I still don’t understand those “raw milk” people. I always get the “natural” argument, but humans are the only species to (a) drink milk in adulthood and (b) drink the milk of another species.

  19. SkyeBlue says:

    I’ve purchased both the Horizon and the Walmart brand organic milk and the Horizon brand is much better. To me it is worth the bit of extra money knowing all those hormones and anit-biotics are not in the milk we are drinking. To me even the 2% organic milk tastes alot better than the Whole non-organic milk.

    I also buy the organic fruits and vegetables when I can, especially the carrots and apples. I always thought all carrots had that pesticide taste to them until I tried organic ones for the first time. Definitely worth the extra money.

  20. Rusted says:

    I knew being lactose intolerant would be good for something. How about some “organic” water?

  21. humorbot says:
  22. HungryGrrl says:

    adult humans do not need to drink milk… in fact, most can’t even digest it. (someone had to say it!)

  23. number13 says:

    Just an FYI: do your research on “organic” labels. A search on Google for Horizon Organic brings up scary stories about their company farms that claim to be organic. I personally avoid everything made by Horizon Organic. Organic Valley, so far, seems to be a much better option. Otherwise, you’d be better off saving your money and just going non-organic.

  24. YodaYid says:

    I wouldn’t say organic is a fad, any more than I would say that environmentalism is a fad. Factory farming has had a lot of negative impact on the environment, and organic is a way to reduce that. Which is why it saddens me when scumbags like Aurora take advantage of people with good intentions and sell the same product for double the price.

    Oh yeah – in case you haven’t seen The Meatrix – it’s well worth the 10 minutes.

  25. CyGuy says:

    @grebby: “Have you bought milk lately? Organic is maybe 25% more than the rBST cocktail that is regular milk. “

    I’m not sure where you shop, but I pay about $8 for 1.5 gallons of HORIZON 1% at CostCo – that’s roughly $5.35/gal. I don’t buy regular milk, but I’m pretty sure the price is around $3/gallon. That means organic is almost 100% more, not just 25%.

    I’m not a fanatic about organic, but I think if you are going to buy organic for only some of your food it should be meats and dairy products first as those are foods where toxins are likely to bio-accumulate.

    @Ulm: I was surprised to hear that even giving a cow antibiotics therapeutically would ban them for life from producing milk that gets the organic label, but I think most intelligent farmers would try to sell their milk as rBGH-free/pasture fed milk, which you do see sold at some stores, rather than cull the cow from the herd to be sold as meat.

  26. Major-General says:

    @HungryGrrl: “adult humans do not need to drink milk… most can’t even digest it”

    If your talking worldwide, maybe. But most Europeans and Americans (you know we’re from European descent) can digest milk as adults.

  27. Her Grace says:

    @Ulm: Thanks. That was interesting!
    @Cy Guy: Could you expand upon ‘toxins’? It gets tossed around as a buzz word, and I’m moderately confident you don’t have a clue what any of those ‘toxins’ are, let alone what they might be doing to your body.

  28. chopchopturtleboy says:

    Read the USDA info here:

    [www.cornucopia.org]

    More “willful violations” than you can shake a turnip stick at. Aurora got off easy for its lies to consumers.

  29. ghettoimp says:

    @lincolnparadox: “But, when you consider that you’re getting about 10-50% yield from organic agriculture, you have to make a choice: have happy cows or feed 1 to 9 more people?”

    Even if we accept your premise that we can feed 9 more people today by embracing fertilizers, pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics, it is not clear that it is the right choice.

    Maybe you can feed 9 more people today, but if doing this means ruining the land for the next generation, is it really a good idea? We know that conventional farming and livestock operations produce a lot of waste and damage the environment. While the label “organic” certainly doesn’t mean that the food is produced in a sustainable way, it does seem like abandoning chemicals is a necessary step in this direction.

    Maybe you can feed 9 more people today, but what are you feeding them? We also know that conventionally-produced produce is laced with pesticides, non-organic milk includes bovine growth hormone, and conventionally-raised livestock are and kept in such filthy environments that liberal amounts of antibiotics are regularly needed to fend off disease. Is this really the sort of food we should be striving to create?

    Maybe you can feed 9 more people today, but is that really a good thing? Hunger in the United States is the product of our economic system, not our farming methods. We produce almost twice as many calories, per person, as we need to eat, and many of these calories are produced in a very inefficient way–e.g., meat. Marketing these calories has contributed to our “obesity epidemic.” Maybe by producing more food we could help “feed the world,” but shipping US-produced food to every other country probably isn’t a very good and sustainable idea in the long run, either.

    A great book about this kind of stuff is “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”

  30. witten says:

    Here’s a link to ratings of various organic milk producers by brand, from the very organization cited in the article above:

    [cornucopia.org]

    Aurora rates very poorly, as does Horizon. Organic Valley, on the other hand, is rated highly. Does anyone know any other sources for this sort of information?

  31. Rusted says:

    @Major-General: I’m of Scandinavian and other northern European stock and I can’t drink it. Also not all Americans are of just European descent. We are the great Melting Pot with ingredients from other continents including our own. Something like 30 to 50 million of us have troubles with the stuff. Got this from the USDA.

  32. phrygian says:

    Aurora has been providing milk to Safeway to sell under their “O” house-brand organic label. They also sell to other grocery companies to sell as generic organic milk. (I think Wal-Mart is one of their buyers.) I shop at Tom Thumb (a Safeway store) and was disgusted when I learned that “O” milk was from Aurora. Now, I only buy Stremicks Heritage milk — it’s organic and their cows are ethically treated. I don’t care that it’s twice the price of the other milk in the case; it’s worth it to me.

  33. shoegazer says:

    “Organic” is one of those things where the concept is far better than the execution. You can definitely see the price differences (more than 150% for “Organic, Free-Range” eggs in the UK) but not the quality difference.

    Sadly the certification and checking process has to become much much more robust before I will be wiling to pay the premium for shrunken looking fruit that may be rejects from the pesticide bin anyway!

  34. shoegazer says:

    For the kashrut (kosher) process, for example, a rabbi has to perform annual checks on the conditions of every stage of production and transportation of the food before it’s certified. Anyone caught putting non-kosher ingredients gets their certificate revoked for ALL their products, not just the one which violated the provisions. Why doesn’t the FDA (or whoever certifies organic in the States) do the same?

  35. @snwbrder0721: “There are, however numerous large signs that read “Organic Dairy – Keep out””

    Probably because since the cows can’t have antibiotics, and they’re mostly genetically super-closely related, they’re very susceptible to catching cold from one another and getting very sick. A lot of these places very tightly control access for that reason.

    @coss3n: “People who drink unpasteurized milk *will* get sick sooner or later.”

    If the animals are properly cared for and the milk is properly handled, they shouldn’t. And there are, of course, very sophisticated methods to check raw milk for taint these days. I’m not particularly INTERESTED in drinking raw milk, but my aunt and uncle ran a small goat dairy for years that only sold raw milk with never a single problem. Of course, she’s a vet and he’s a scientist, so they had a lot of tools at their disposal. :)

  36. MrEvil says:

    @rmz: I hope the undulant fever is worth the better taste of raw milk. Brucella bacteria have an incubation period of 1 to 3 weeks or even longer. It is spread from infected animals to humans by consuming contaminated dairy products. Given the rather long incubation period a good quantity of contaminated milk could make it to the consumer market.

    So for your organic raw milk, you’re taking a pretty good sized risk. Animals won’t be medicated to prevent the disease (organic farmers will only give antibiotics to animals displaying signs of infection and take them out of production) nor does the milk get pasteurized. Sure there’s only 1 case of undulant fever per 200,000 Americans. However I bet that 1 out of 200,000 got the disease drinking raw milk.

    The requirements for USDA Organic certification are so absurd its no wonder organic stuff costs so damn much. If the hippies would climb down from their high horse and use some damn sense for a change Whole foods might not be known as “Whole Paycheck” foods.

  37. rmz says:

    @Mr3vil: Oh, I don’t even drink raw milk, and probably never would. It was more a response to the statement of “organic milk tastes sooooooo much better” because, to be fair, even though it’s “all-natural organic and not chemically altered” it’s still been highly modified in structure and taste from its original form.

  38. pestie says:

    I buy organic milk because:

    1. I drink a lot of milk, and don’t like being poisoned, even if it’s done slowly.
    2. I can afford it.
    3. It tastes better to me.

    That said, since I’ve started seeing so much organic milk in chain grocery stores, and even now at Wal-Mart, I’ve been waiting for this to happen. It was inevitable. I’m not even a little surprised.