The authenticity of organic milk is attracting wider public and media scrutiny, and retailers selling this gateway category are wise to prepare some answers for concerned customers. Almost certainly, they will come as the Cornucopia Institute continues plugging away at the nation's largest certified processors.
The Wisconsin-based family farming organization has been agitating the issue over the summer, filing formal complaints with the U.S. Department of Agriculture against Horizon Organic and Aurora Organic Dairy. The group alleges the big dairy concerns are committing livestock management violations like purchasing non-organic calves, and circumventing "access to pasture" rules, even as federal regulators update the term's official definition.
"These large factory farms, mostly operated in desert-like conditions in the arid West, have allegedly been doing more talking about pasturing their cows than the hard work required to truly produce organic milk," said Mark Kastel, Cornucopia's senior farm policy analyst, after filing a complaint against Horizon Organic.
The dairy called the allegations without merit and baseless.
"We work closely with our certifiers on an ongoing basis to ensure that each dairy is fully certified organic and meets the USDA national organic standards, which are the most stringent in the world," the company said in a statement. "Horizon Organic is transparent in its practices, and we welcome a USDA review should one be forthcoming."
However, some retailers are siding with Cornucopia. PCC Natural Markets, the respected, eight-store cooperative based in Redmond, Wash., cited a lack of confidence as well as consumer complaints, in deciding to drop Horizon Organic milk from its stores.
"It's not that we were taking on Horizon specifically. This is a concern we have with all of our vendors," said Diana Crane, PCC's public relations manager. "But, there's a lot of compelling evidence that Cornucopia particularly has provided. We've got photos of feedlots that are disturbing."
Horizon constituted a little over 7% of the chain's milk case, and the deficit will be filled with product from an independent farm based in Northern California. PCC will continue to carry Silk soy products, manufactured by Horizon's parent company, Dean Foods.
For its part, Aurora is answering critics by improving operations. Among the initiatives outlined in a long-term master plan, the nation's top supplier of private-label, certified organic milk is quadrupling the amount of pasture land at the Texas facility mentioned in the Cornucopia complaint; it is also transforming its original Colorado operation by reducing the number of lactating cows from 4,100 to 1,000, with the space gained to become pasture, according to Clark Driftmier, Aurora's senior vice president.
"It ensures we will meet or exceed any future USDA regulations that might be coming down regarding the amount of pasture and rules like that," he said. "We meet and exceed all the regulations currently, and all of our certifications are valid."
Aurora's Texas facility was recently recertified organic by Quality Assurance International, and received initial certification for its animal welfare policies and practices by Validus Services, an independent third-party certification agency headquartered in Urbandale, Iowa. Aurora is working to get other facilities welfare-approved, Driftmier said.