Organic Certification And Why the Dairy Industry Isn’t As Regulated As You May Think
The Washington Post reported on May 2nd that that organic milk you may be shelling out extra bucks for may not be everything you expected it to be. The organic milk industry has exploded in recent years due to demand caused by hype and that Internet-inflated word, “trends.” One farm alone that WP visited had over 15,000 cows whereas most organic farms have somewhere closer to 1,500. This is likely surprising to those of us who consider organic to be in the same category as local or independently owned.
What the Post’s article revealed was that, with farms of this size in particular, there is some serious oversight in the governmental oversight relevant to organic certification. The problems start with the fact that organic farms are allowed to hire their own organic inspectors under the current USDA rules. As the industry grows toward the 15,00 herd size, things can easily sl9ip through the cracks.
When it comes to organic milk, one of the things that organic certification looks at in particular is how the cows graze. Specifically, organic farms are supposed to have daily grazing in grass throughout the year; this means walking around in a field instead of standing around in a barn at a feeding trough. Allowing the animals to graze is considered a more natural life for them, leading to more beneficial milk output according to organic standards and consumer demands. The Post reports that the specific farm they visited did not seem to fully comply with this daily grazing requirement. While the people in charge reported that their cows were constantly out to pasture, the Post reporters noted that only a couple hundred cows could be seen in the pasture over more than a week’s worth of days visiting. They estimate that only 10% of the herd was ever out at the same time and they cited satellite photographs of the farm to support these claims.
The owners of the farm say that they function within the rules created by USDA for organic certification.
The Post further reported that analyses of the milk coming out of the farm may corroborate this finding that the cows do not graze enough to be organically compliant. They had the milk analyzed by scientists at Virginia Tech who found that it more closely resembled “conventional milk” instead of reaching organic standards. The owners of the farm called the tests “isolated.” The way that scientists can determine if a cow has grazed or not has to do with certain elements in the milk which tend to be present or not present depending on grazing, or tend to have higher or lower levels depending on it. When a cow has grazed a sufficient amount, for example, conjugated linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid tend to have higher levels than when a cow is confined to a stationary position or to limited movement with non-grass feed. Grazing also tends to lead to lower levels of linoleic acid. If you think about the differences in your body when you exercise versus when you don’t, you’ll have a bit of an idea as to the differences freedom to move and certain types of food can have on the body of an animal, and on whatever comes out of that body.
The Post concluded their investigation by getting in touch with the inspectors who were employed to inspect this farm for organic compliance. Apparently the inspectors they contacted were not certain as to the grazing practices because they only conducted an annual audit, which happens to fall outside of the “grazing season” when cows would be safest to graze regularly and, therefore, expected to for organic compliance. A quote from the USDA seemed to indicate that this was not an acceptable inspection, therefore, for determining organic certification because grazing is such a key component of said certification.
The reason this is particularly concerning both to consumers and businesses, like a coffee shop, which utilize milk, is because if the milk being purchased is not actually meeting organic compliance requirements, those consumers are paying for an organic label that is, in fact, false. Organic products are notoriously more expensive. A coffee shop, especially a coffee shop participating in third wave coffee with a highly demanding consumer set, are likely to invest in organic products. You don’t want to spend that type of money on a product that is just the same as the cheaper version; this could put you in the position of wasting money and inadvertently misleading your customers.
The positive side to this story was that among the various organic farms the Post visited, this particular farm (Aurora Organic Dairy, whose products are sold in particular at Wal-Mart stores as their Great Value brand organic milk) was the only one with milk that did not appear to be wholly organically compliant.
When a farm like Aurora does not comply, it can have an effect on smaller farms if fees or costs are raised in response to noncompliance; for example, if it becomes more expensive to have a farm inspected—a cost a large farm could more easily handle than a small farm.
Aurora reportedly has a history of noncompliance issues and other small farms the Post spoke with reported that big farms like it are not complying with organic standards and are getting away with it because of their size. The organic “seal” is a relatively new qualification, having originated in 2000 in response to a lack of uniformity and reliable information for consumers when it came to organic products. This was supposed to be a standardization for organic rules with fees and fines ensuring that compliance occurs in ways that both minimize animal abuse and maximize health and nutrition for consumers. What the Post story ultimately reveals is that this somewhat new system is flawed, riddled with holes that can allow big farms to take advantage of the system, smaller farms and consumers in order to make more money off of a label they are not fit to receive. They allow farms to hire their own inspectors in order to save money as a government agency; but, this is one of the biggest areas where holes occur. Without government run inspections, farms are taking advantage.