Spilling the Milk

Local markets charge into the national battle over standards for organic milk. Should you?

There's a battle going on over organic milk, and it's being played out not just in the media but in local groceries like PCC and Madison Market. Once again, the pressure is on for you, the consumer, to take sides. But what are the sides? Last week, the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based watchdog, announced it had filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture alleging that Horizon Organic Dairy, the nation's largest organic dairy brand, is violating federal organic standards. The national press release Cornucopia Institute issued also revealed that our very own PCC would soon stop selling Horizon products. Goldie Caughlin, PCC's nutrition education manager, says that the cooperative had not timed its announcement to coordinate with the lawsuit. In fact, the cooperative had planned to tell customers in mid-September about its plan to drop Horizon, and was quietly securing alternate suppliers for organic milk, butter, and sour cream. It's not such a defiant act: Customers were already shying from Horizon because of previous questions about the producer's factory-farming practices, and sales of Horizon's products had dropped to 7.5 percent of total dairy grocery sales. Furthermore, this spring the Organic Consumers Association called for a boycott of Horizon, parent company Dean Foods, and Aurora Dairy, which produces milk for the Safeway and Costco house organic brands. It was the association's first boycott of an organic producer. Larger supermarkets, such as QFC, Larry's, and local Whole Foods stores, continue to sell Horizon products, but smaller ones like Capitol Hill's Rainbow Natural Foods Market is phasing them out, and Madison Market staffers are debating whether to do the same. The Cornucopia Institute complaint is over the ambiguously worded requirement that organic dairy producers give their cows "access to pasture." What does "access to pasture" mean? Green fields dotted with cows, you may think. Horizon, the complaint alleges, interprets the phrase as a rare trot around a plot of grass; the cows spend the rest of their time in huge pens scarfing down organic grain and cycling through the milking line. The brawl over organic milk is getting serious. The organic standards advisory board has advised the USDA to define "access" more clearly, say, to require a cow producing certified milk to spend 120 days out of the year in the fields. But pressure to keep the standards vague is coming from Big Organic and large-scale retailers like Safeway and WalMart, who right now are cannonballing into organics with no regard to how many smaller farmers and retailers drown in their ripples. There are a number of major issues at the heart of the debate about what "organic" should represent when applied to animal products. One is the issue of clean food, and milk from Horizon's factory-farmed cows still promises lower to nonexistent levels of antibiotics, hormones, and pesticides. Issue number two is how we treat the cows that produce our milk and the family farmers who want to raise them right, not to mention the environmental impact of raising huge herds of dairy cattle on crowded drylots. When buying milk, as with many other animal products, customers have to choose from three levels of purity—conventional, corporate organic, or what I'd wincingly call "ethically organic"—with corresponding price increases. Most of the parents I know can't afford to feed their kids chemicals and hormones but also can't afford to spend $7.50 on a pound of butter from pasture-fed cows. Factory-farmed organic represents a compromise, and you have to decide for yourself whether it's one you want to make. Should you feel guilty for buying Horizon milk? No. (However, Organic Valley has a better reputation and its products don't cost much more.) Should advocates and retailers keep pressuring Horizon to toe the line? Better believe it. jkauffman@seattleweekly.com

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