Thursday, March 23, 2006

Milking It - Organic-Industrial Complexities

A new study came out this week warning consumers that some of America's largest organic dairy brands may not be as pastoral or wholesome as they'd like you to believe. Almost 70 organic dairy producers were researched , visited and graded on a scale of 1 to 5 cows. The vast majority scored highly, but nearly 20% scored a substandard 1 cow rating, denoting that their practices resemble the unethical & inhumane conditions of large conventional factory farms consumers likely think they're avoiding when they pay extra for organic milk.

The Organic Trade Association, an organic agri-business lobbying group, issued a statement defending it's largest members who control 70% of the organic dairy market claiming that the survey would "only succeed in sowing seeds of distrust in organic farming and organic products."

The large scale corporate producers attempt through PR to conceal that they use farms packed with literally thousands of "organic" cows that have never encountered a blade of grass, most dining in pens on dry "organic" feeds, spending their lives confined and hooked onto a milking machines three times a day. The milk is then pumped into mass tanks, "ultra-pastuerized" in a high heat process to kill any stray bacteria, as well as helpful enzymes and many of the vitamins, so it can be transported across the country & packaged for shipping to consumers hundreds and even thousands of miles away.

While most organic dairy operations use 50-75 cows, it is increasingly common in this fiercely competitive industry, to see larger corporate concerns superseding traditional family farm & cooperative methods and tightly managing thousands of production animals at one location.

For example take Dallas Tx based Dean Foods, an $11 billion a year agri-business concern, that took over the Alta-Dena and Horizon Organics brands a few years ago. Dean Foods one of the five largest dairy-focused companies in the world amongst Danone, Nestlé, and Unilever owns the popular Horizon Organics, a brand that is rated only 1 cow on the 5 cow Cornucopia standards scale. Dean Foods has vigorously defended their reputation, and says they still buy some milk from family farms, but cannot deny they also manage a 4000 head containment farm in Idaho, are building a new 2000 head lot, and also buy milk from a 10,000 head operation in California. In February in New York at a meeting with shareholders, Dean reps refused to disclose how much of their milk came from operations of 1,000 cows or more.

Another "substandard" rated producer is Aurora, the nation's largest organic dairy concern, based in Colorado where it manages a 6000 head operation. They also buy from other agri-biz operators and produce private label and in house organic brands for Safeway, Wild Oats, Giant, Trader Joes and Costco.

Here is a photo of some of the hutches Aurora uses to confine their calves

Below are some calves at an Aurora "organic" facility after a routine inspection found them dead amongst thousands of hutches .

Here are some of the folks who "control every part of this system," and stand behind these "sustainable" practices in which legal complaints have been to the USDA alleging organic livestock management violations.

With demand for organic dairy products jumping 20% per year, and current suppies of organic milk flying off the shelves, Aurora and the industry as a whole are under pressure to meet demands from grocery chains who want the hottest products in stock at all times. With ultrapastuerization methods, Milk is now moving nationally across statelines, with midwestern mega-farms and Texas supplying much of the east coast, especially in winter when supplies are lower. Stonyfield dairies of New Hampshire says a shortage of US organic milk has them seeking permission to import New Zealand raised "organic" milk powders for it's yogurts.

The Cornucopia Institute is a non profit that started the Organic Integrity Project to act as a corporate and governmental watchdog assuring profit motives do not compromise the credibility of organic farming methods. According to the report's primary author Mark Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst for the Institute “Even though these packages show cows idyllically grazing on grass-covered pastures, with glowing prose attesting to the marketer's commitment to organic ideals, the milk might well have come from dairies that confine their cows to dirt feedlots and small sheds".

One farming group that rated a solid 4 cows on the study, and is right in the middle of the battle to increase production without compromise of their standards is "Organic Valley". They started in 1987 as a small regional Wisconsin organic cooperative, but have grown to 417 farms in their home state, and a total of over 700 small farms in 22 states. They range in size from 20 cows up to their largest member's 400 cow farm. Unlike the largest corporate organics purveyors, they denote region of origin on their milk cartons.

They recently cut an innovative deal with "Green Bank" an Amish farmers cooperative from Ohio to meet the growing demand for organic dairy products. However, despite being the nation's largest organic farming co-operative, they had to cease milk shipments to Wal-Mart last year as they could not ethically keep pace. They want mor farmer's to convert to organic methods, and are reaching ot to the younger generation to get involved through their "Generation Organic" program that actively recruits on campuses to get young people into farming. Evidence shows it may be working, as 2/3 rds of Organic Valley's farmers are 50 or younger, in contrast to the 61 percent of US farmers overall who are 55 or older.

Almost 20 years ago, when Organic Valley started, their were no real organic dairy standards in Wisconsin so they actually had to create their own, which have been adopted as a model for elsewhere. Specifications require that no animal be denied access to pasture, and that cattle graze whenever possible. While the average dairy cow on a conventional farm using rBGH (Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone) to enhance milk production lives 18 months, the average Organic Valley cow is already over five years old.

The cooperative prides itself on the healthy animals they raise, and the awards and strides forward their farmers have made in the face of increased competition and dairy industry awash in antibiotics and bathed in hormones, and cost cutting chemicals. In Vermont last month, one of Organic Valley's traditional 65 cow dairies received both state and national honors for top quality milk, as well as an award for lowest somatic cell count, which is an indicator for udder health. "Receiving the award for lowest somatic cell count was very meaningful as it sends the message that antibiotics are not the only answer in treating herd health issues," said Organic Valley family dairyman Steve Meyer.

Organic Valley's commitment doesn't stop on their farms, and their website ( even maintain's activist tools that help visitors send instant messages to their elected officials on concerns such as animal cloning, genetically engineered food labeling and the need for organic research.

If you want to more about healthy organics, how to stop factory farming etc... meet me at the Santa Clara Convention Center where I'll be represeting Organic Valley, and handing out samples of their award winning dairy products, juices etc.

anyhow, that 's the rant of the day:

here's some links and even some soundtrack music for y'all


Kelis - Milk Shake

Organic - The Getaway

Bjork - Aurora ( hot blue mix )

Harry McDonough - Wait Til The Cows Come Home

Jacob Haller - Milk Cow Blues

Wayne "The Train" Hancock - Milk Cow Blues
(live @ Continental Club in Austin 2003)

(Not) Tom Lehrer - Cows With Guns

Kenefick - Cows Y'all ( Who Let The Cows Out)

Sam Desborough - On The Farm

Samuel Jackson Five - If You Show Off The Milk...

Deerhoof - Milk Man

Deerhoof - Milking


Survey Ranks ' Organic-ness" at Dairies
NY times March 22 2006

Behind the Organic-Industrial Complex
Michael Pollan wrote this NY times article in 2001

Land of Milk & Money
A 2005 expose' on Horizon Dairies from salon . com

I'm adding an addendum here in early July 2006 , as I've noticed some heavy traffic to this page from people seeking additional info on the controversy surrounding organic milk...from the South Bend Trbune

Defining 'organic' dairy
Big feedlot operations causing concern among consumers, farmers.

Steve Karnowski, Associated Press

JORDAN, Minn. -- The cows on Pam and Jeff Riesgraf's farm chomped happily away on lush green grass on a warm, sunny afternoon. Their milk would soon find its way to grocery stores, where organic dairy products are a hot item.

The Riesgraf farm represents one vision for organic dairy -- small- and medium-sized family farms where the cows have names and spend the growing season on pasture.

A different kind of organic dairy farm is emerging out west -- corporate-owned feedlot operations with thousands of cows that are fed organic grain but, according to critics, get little chance to graze.

Fears that big operations will muscle out family farms have produced a backlash, including a boycott by the Organic Consumers Association against the country's biggest organic milk brand, Horizon Organic.

Organic farmers and consumer groups are hoping the U.S. Department of Agriculture will level the field. The agency is considering whether to mandate that milk bearing the "USDA Organic" seal come from cows that have significant access to pasture, a move smaller producers say would give them the protection they need.Chris Hoffman drank Horizon milk until she learned about the dispute and switched brands.

The Sherburne, N.Y., woman said she'd thought she was buying milk from "family farms with happy cows." To her, feedlot milk does not follow the spirit of organic farming.

"I just think it's patently dishonest. And it just really ticked me off," she said.

Horizon, part of Fort Worth, Tex.-based Dean Foods Co., sells about half of the organic milk in this country,

through retailers including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Its president and CEO, Joe Scalzo, said Horizon is a strong supporter of family farms, helping hundreds make the transition to organic. Horizon is just trying to meet the "exponential" growth in a market where demand outstrips supply by some 20 percent, he said.However, Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst with the research group Cornucopia Institute, countered, "There's been a near consensus in the organic community that these factory farms are repugnant to the consumer and put organic farms at a disadvantage."

Kastel said organic milk consumers are willing to pay more because they believe it's produced to higher ethical standards that benefit the environment, the animals and family farmers.

The Organic Trade Association says the U.S. organic dairy sector racked up $2.1 billion in sales last year, up 24 percent from 2004. The OTA says organics now make up 3.5 percent of all dairy products sold in the U.S.

While Scalzo said the boycott has had "very, very little" effect, he acknowledged Horizon has had to spend time explaining its position to stores.

While Broomfield, Colo.-based Horizon has taken the most heat, the critics also slam Aurora Organic Dairy, of Boulder, Colo., which provides private-label organic milk to chains including Costco, Safeway, Giant and Wild Oats.Aurora says it milks about 4,100 and 3,500 cows at its farms near Platteville, Colo., and Dublin, Texas, and will open a 3,200-cow operation near Kearsey, Colo., this fall.

The company says its approach is unique in the organic dairy sector, allowing it to keep prices affordable while producing the highest quality milk. Aurora says its cows get a balanced diet that includes organic grain and hay, as well as grazing on organic pasture.

Aurora spokeswoman Amy Barr said organic standards shouldn't be based on an "image of Old MacDonald's Farm" held by people who may never have been on a farm. Pasture is important, but it's not the only measure of animal welfare, nor is an all-grass diet necessarily the best for a cow's health, she said.

Horizon milks about 4,000 cows at its farm near Paul, Idaho, and about 450 at its farm near Kennedyville, Md. But Scalzo said Horizon gets over 80 percent of its milk from 340 family farms, all but three of them with herds of 500 cows or fewer.

"Farms of all sizes are going to be needed -- at least for the foreseeable future, the next two to five years -- to meet demand," Scalzo said.

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In other news, or at least news about who makes the news,
The Washington Post hired a guy whose bio calls "the web's leading Republican community" blogger blowhard, and former Bush appointee( the youngest ever!) named Ben Domenech to write a conservative column called "Red America" that launched on March 21. ( hey I thought Red referred to commies... why does the right get control of the color of the commies? huh?? )
Well, anyhow Ben, whose previous credentials include home schooling before dropping out of college and working for the publishing house that bought you "Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry" was looking forward to a shot at using the Post's pulpit for his own punditry, and that apparently went bust within three days... I hear he was asked to move on dot org quickly as it were...

Why you ask ? well it's not that the guy is a ego maniacal nitwit, or rascist rabble rouser who in the past has referred to Coretta Scott King as a commie, or even that he recently wrote that The KKK has killed less innocent people than Supreme Court's support of abortion rights.

Nope, the Washington Post hired him & then fired him because he , well, he apparently wasn't even doing "his own" critical thinking...and the Post thanked it's readers for pointing this out... I guess since the news organ didn't have time themselves...

The reason he's gone, is that the Post got wind of multiple instances of irrefutably plagiaristic material, and even took the time to mention and report on them to it's readers. For his part Domenech is in denial and had old friends at a conservative Capitol Hill paper publish his denials under the headline "Domenech Strikes Back, Calls Washington Post Editors 'Fools'

The Daily Kos printed comparisons of another sample from Domenech's National Review writing that liberally borrowed from prases of an Altlanta Journal Constituition writer.'s lead story yesterday was "A Portrait of the Blogger as a Young Plagiarist". While David Brock's Media Matters seized on the issue, including refuting denials of Domenech, in particular about a 2001 piece that blatantly cribbed from PJ O'Rourke( longtime right leaning yuppie Foreign Policy voice at Rolling Stone, and now a fellow at The Cato Institute)...

I don't really care much I suppose , as I probably wouldn't have read some privileged Bush-loving boy spouting his crazed creepo coments... but at least there are folks out there exposing liars and chumps.

Because , golly, I just wanna rock...

Twisted Sister - I Wanna Rock

Joe Strummer - The Road To Rock & Roll

Badfinger - Rock & Roll

Generation X - King Rocker

Kid Rock - My Name Is Rock

Speaking of Rock, I'm hoping to catch The Hellacopters tonight, but since I'm fairly broke, forgot to buy tickets ahead of time, and it's at one of my least favorite venues, so maybe not. Whatever, I have all I need because everything is on TV...

Hellacopters - Everythings on TV

The first time I had a chance to see Swedish rock revivalists The Hellacopters it was a pretty great bill, with The Supersuckers .

Eddie Spaghetti- I Don't Want To Grow Up ( Tom Waits cover )

Turns out Hellacopters frontman Nicke Andersson is also the drummer and main songwriter in Entombed and is involved in a new project called DeathBreath - go to there MySpace site and deal with it...

Well as meorable as the above mentioned bands might be, no one can top the live show of El Vez as far as i'm concerned... I wish he'd get off his Teatro Zinzanni dinner theater horse and return to playing his annual holiday show around here again...

El Vez - Power To The People ( John Lennon cover)

Turns out that Israeli metal band Acropolis are offering up a new track, replete with screaming, plodding riffs and some guy whose singing resembles a Jewish Bruce Dickinson

Acropolis - Lead The Wake

anyhow, gotta go... toodles


Anonymous said...

Tom Lehrer did not do "Cows with Guns". I've had this file for several years and it is mis-labled; I also have just about everything Lehrer ever recorded. Not sure who it is, but NOT Lehrer.

Mr. Beer N. Hockey said...

Good yack on the organic milk business. I have bought a jug or two of the stuff recently but may have to stick with goat milk until I sort out what is going on around here.

While the photo of the dead cows is sort of nasty, life and death is all part of farming.

Rah said...

Great post -- thoughtful writing along with well-selected tracks. I Googled around about "Cows With Guns", which was indeed written in 1996 by Dana Lyons; more at

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info. I just started buying organic milk and would have thought I was doing the right thing. Now I know there are shades of gray even in the "right" group.

Anonymous said...

anyway you can add "printer friendly version" to your site?