In what The Cornucopia Institute is alleging is one of the largest fraud investigations in the history of the organic food industry, the Wisconsin-based farm policy research group announced filing formal legal complaints against 14 industrial livestock operations producing milk, meat and eggs being marketed, allegedly illegally, as organic.
Cornucopia contends that industrial-scale livestock farming illegally claiming organic status 1) undercuts ethical farmers and competitors that comply with federal organic law; and 2) takes advantage of consumers in the marketplace who assume that the animals producing their organic-certified food are being treated respectfully, and consequently result in higher food quality. Peer-reviewed published research indicates clear nutritional advantages in consuming milk and meat from cattle that are grazed on fresh grass, including elevated levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Eggs and chickens from birds that are allowed (as the law requires)to engage in their instinctive behaviors as omnivores in foraging on grass and insects, produce eggs that are coveted as being more nutritious and more flavorful.
The family-scale farmers who helped commercialize the organic food movement in the 1980s did so, in part, because agribusiness consolidation and control of the food supply were squeezing profit margins and forcing farmers off their land. Consumers enthusiastically made organics a rapidly growing market sector by supporting farmers and processors willing to produce food to a different standard in terms of environmental stewardship, humane animal husbandry, and economic fairness for farmers. “The inaction by the USDA places thousands of ethical family-scale farmers, who are competing with a couple of dozen giant dairies, at a competitive disadvantage,” said Kevin Engelbert, a New York-based dairyman, milking 140 cows who, along with his family, was the first certified organic dairy producer in the U.S.
There is nothing in the federal organic standards pertaining to the size of any given operation.
“The organic standards are scale-neutral,” said Kastel. “However, if properly enforced the standards are scale-limiting. At some point the magnitude of these operations becomes preposterous because their practical ability to meet minimum organic and humane livestock standards becomes impossible.”
Engelbert, who also previously served on the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), stated, “When serving on the NOSB, I was always reminded that the recommendations we made to the National Organic Program (NOP) had to be scale-neutral. I would like to see the Organic Food Production Act enforced on a scale-neutral basis as well.”
Without enforcement of NOP law, many traditional organic dairy farmers are in financial stress, with some selling their cows and exiting the industry. “Allowing these illegal dairies to continue to operate is a travesty and significantly undercuts the supply-demand dynamic that should be rewarding farmers in the marketplace and providing a decent living for our families,” Engelbert added.
In what Cornucopia claims has been years of inaction by the USDA, Cornucopia contracted for aerial photography in nine states over an eight-month period from West Texas to New York and Maryland. Consistent with earlier site visits, aerial photography confirmed a systemic pattern of corporate agribusiness operating industrial-scale confinement livestock facilities without legitimate grazing or access to the outdoors, as required by federal organic regulations. Cornucopia has filed formal legal complaints on the following industrial livestock operations with hyperlinks to the actual complaints and aerial photography:
In the chicken industry, the USDA allows corporate agribusiness to confine as many as 100,000 laying hens in a building, sometimes exceeding 1 million birds on a “farm,” and substituting a tiny screened porch for true access to the outdoors. The loophole, “porched-poultry,” was first allowed in 2002 when the NOP director overruled organic certifiers and allowed The Country Hen, a Massachusetts egg producer, to confine tens of thousands of birds in a barn with an attached porch that might, at best, hold 5% of the birds in the main building. “Quite frankly, even if Miles McEvoy, who currently directs the NOP, believes that a porch, with a floor, ceiling and screened walls, constitutes ‘the outdoors,’ and only 5% of the birds have access or can fit in that space, then 95% of the others are being illegally confined,” Cornucopia’s Kastel stated.
Beginning in 2004, Cornucopia filed their first legal complaints against these industrial operations with varying degrees of success. As a result, the largest dairy supplying the Horizon label (now controlled by WhiteWave Foods) was decertified, and the USDA placed sanctions against Aurora Dairy. Both WhiteWave and Aurora are still being investigated by the USDA for improprieties.
However by 2014, Cornucopia contends the USDA responds very slowly, if at all, to similar complaints undercutting ethical farmers and competitors that comply with federal organic law.
While the potential for large-scale fraud in the organic food industry is disillusioning, here’s what you can do as a consumer of organic products:
Support your local organic dairies, ranches, and egg and poultry farms. Neighborhood health food stores have advantages over large supermarket chains in their ability to carry milk products, poultry, eggs, and even meat from locally vetted sources. When your sources of dairy, meat, poultry, and eggs are local, it is easy to call the farm, or even better, arrange a visit with your kids to confirm the conditions the animals are kept in and the quality of their feed. Being connected to the source of one’s food has a satisfaction and gratitude that is impossible to have any other way.
Trust your senses. Your sense of sight, smell, and taste will confirm the quality of organic meat, dairy, poultry, and eggs, particularly after you have become accustomed to high quality food. If you have ever seen venison – wild deer or elk meat – then you will remember the lean, deep red color of the flesh, like a bold cabernet sauvignon. Truly grass-fed beef has a similar color and leanness. Only grazing on grass and sagebrush produces that leanness and color, which absolutely translates to the flavor of the meat. Anyone who has subsisted on venison or grass-fed beef for a year and then reverted back to conventional, store-bought beef can attest to “tasting” the corn and soy fed to conventionally farmed cows, elk, or buffalo. Pastured hens lay eggs with a deep orange-colored yolk, yet the vast majority of eggs on the market have yolks that are pale yellow in color. That deep orange color is a testament to the chicken’s natural outdoor diet that includes bugs and therefore has higher levels of Omega 3s and vitamin A.
Rule of thumb: the lighter the color of the meat, egg yolks, butter, etc., the lower the quality of the animal’s diet and probably quality of life.
When you find sources of organic food you trust and love, then support them. As an example, I am a devout customer of Redwood Hill Farm and particularly their plain goat milk kefir. Far from “reasonably priced” at around $7 per quart, I love how their kefir makes me feel when I drink it, how they treat their animals, and the very high quality of their products. Because it is not cheap, I have to budget accordingly, but the goat milk kefir is a staple in our house and I love supporting that farm. I am not affiliated personally or professionally with Redwood Hill Farm and have nothing to gain by discussing this food company. I just love them and enjoy supporting them while supporting my health at the same time!