choosing dairy when all the labels look the same

the surging popularity of organics has made it difficult in recent years to make good choices about organic and "free range" products based on supermarket labels. meat and dairy labeled "organic" used to suggest animal husbandry practices based on humane and sustainable principles -- such as giving animals enough space and comfort to live low-stress, healthy lives and thereby minimizing the need for things like antiobiotics. at the same time, organic produce indicated certification by an independent body (or local statute), and usually meant small-scale production free of pesticides or genetic modification. while the federal codification of the organic label has ensured that certain standards are maintained, plenty of industrial-scale production now masquerades as organic (meeting the basic federal requirements but otherwise operating on a conventional agribusiness model), while small farmers using sustainable methods often can't afford to get their products certified.

as a result, many former advocates of organic food now emphasize local over organic, highlighting the importance of growing seasonal and heirloom varieties bred for flavor and nutrition rather than long-distance durability. for foodies in places like California, or summer in the Northeast, this can be an appealing (if pricey) trend. but no model of local, small-scale farming has yet to offer a practical vision of feeding a country of 300 million without resorting to industrial methods. local and organic food is still the privilege of the few with the time and budget to worry about the provenance of their meals.

at the sime time, a profusion of new labels have appeared in the marketplace which might have some utility, but may also just cloud the situation more. "Fair trade" indicates certification of ethical and equitable trading practices by an independent, international labelling organization (Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International; TransFair in the US), while "Certified Humane" ensures the approval of animal welfare groups like the Humane Society and the ASPCA. There's also "Free farmed," which indicates animal products raised in accordance with the American Humane Association's standards. On the other hand, many generic claims still carry little meaning or specificity, like "free range," "natural," "hormone free," "cage-free," and others, and even when these terms are defined by the USDA, they are often difficult to ensure or enforce (the Consumers Union publishes an excellent online label guide, at Eco-labels.org, that defines and evaluates a plethora of common labels).

when it comes to dairy products, however, an advocacy organization called the Cornucopia Institute has done some of the investigation and research for you, surveying 68 organic dairy labels in the US, and evaluating their farming practices. unsurprisingly, companies like Horizon Organic fared poorly, given their reputation as an industrial-scale dairy outfit that has commandeered the "organic" label to profit from growing public concern over conventional agriculture, while very small-scale local dairies in places like Vermont and Wisconsin were rated highly. but that doesn't mean that the milk from these model farms is likely to be available in your local market, which just furthers the dilemma -- how can you buy and support good farming practices when the best products are so difficult to locate?

the guide is worth reading over to see whether or not any of the dairies listed sell products in your area. i know from my own experience that Straus Family Creamery in Marin County, CA offers some of the best organic milk, yogurt, butter and ice cream i've ever tasted, and i buy their half-gallon glass jars of skim milk weekly (and then return the bottle for re-use). and i was glad to see a good rating for Stonyfield Farm, whose yogurt singles are among my favorites, not to mention their excellent organic frozen yogurt -- despite having been bought out by French company Danone. but i didn't know, for example, that Organic Valley is actually a cooperatively-owned company whose milk is produced by a pool of small-scale organic dairy farmers, and who maintain high standards in terms of animal health and access to pasture. Clover Storenetta also surprised me with a strong score, which i previously knew as a local California dairy that produces conventional milk alongside an organic line. i had assumed they were comparable to brands like Alta Dena, which i've seen in supermarkets and convenience stores in Southern California. but Clover Storenetta actually consists of four modestly sized family-owned farms, while Alta Dena is owned by Dean (like Horizon) and is largely comprised by giant industrial farms that have been minimally converted to organic standards.

overall, private-label dairy products scored very low, largely because most chain markets refused to participate in the study (like Wild Oats, Trader Joe's and Wal-mart). Whole Foods' label 365 organic, however, did well, and claims to source their dairy products regionally from small family farmers rather than large industrial ones. most other store brands, however, refused to release information about the sources of their dairy products, so the Cornucopia Institute turned to industry sources and records, which suggest most of these labels procure their dairy from factory-farm "organic" operations. similarly, most large-scale organic brands were unwilling to provide any information on their farming practices, and most rely on factory-farm methods that often subvert the value of "organic," while edging out smaller farmers with lower prices. the scorecard recommends avoiding brands like Horizon, Aurora, Alta Dena, Back to Nature, Organic Cow, Stremicks, and Wholesome Valley (many of whom also supply the private-labels with factory-farmed dairy products).

the Cornucopia scorecard is well worth reading through -- despite (or rather, due to) the popularity of organics, it's often a challenge to find reliable information behind food production practices, especially when product labels tell such alluring stories of open skies and green meadows, regardless of how the animals are actually raised. i also recommend their charts on who owns organic, which map out most major organic labels and show which are independent (very few) and which are owned by major food corporations. supporting small farms and independent brands is one more way to challenge the centralization of American food production, and demand more localized and sustainable practices.

1 comment:

Bri said...

Thank you so much for this informational article! When I moved to Santa Rosa, I began drinking a lot of Clover organic milk, but recently really scrutinized their blurb on the side. It seemed to be filled with things that sound like corporate-ese for (we're doing the minimum we have to, to factory farm these animals and still call it organic). I am glad to read your assessment that they aren't bad. I plan to click to link to cornucopia, but I wanted to thank you for this information first. Bravo!