Got milk? Got organic milk? That's the question raised by the Washington Post, which reported that milk given the organic label may not, in fact, be organic because of the "unorthodox inspection system" used by the USDA.
According to the Post, for milk to bear an "organic" label, cows must graze daily throughout their growing season. That means no pens and no feed lots. However, the USDA allows farmers to hire their own inspectors from an approved list. And while those involved in the organic dairy industry insist that regulation is very stringent, the Post's reporter found that actual open grazing wasn't as widespread as consumers imagine. During a visit to Aurora Organic Dairy, which supplies organic milk to stores like Costco and Walmart, reporters found that only about 10% of the cows were grazing at any given time.
Sonja Tuitele, an Aurora spokeswoman, said that those observations were flukes, insisting that the cows are out to pasture day and night. The evidence kept stacking against the dairy, especially when the Post analyzed the milk and found that its properties were more similar to other conventional milk, not organic. What gives? The paper notes that inspections occur in November, which is well past general grazing season. That's a breach of USDA rules. Miles McEvoy, chief of the USDA's National Organic Program, notes that inspectors should be out during grazing season, not after.
This reveal is a major blow to small farms, many of which depend on the USDA organic label to bolster sales — in addition to being a point of pride for many farmers. The Post's discovery may smear large producers, but the discovery of faux-organic milk may trickle down to smaller producers, many of whom do hold inspections during grazing season.
"About half of the organic milk sold in the U.S. is coming from very large factory farms that have no intention of living up to organic principles," Mark Kastel, cofounder of the Cornucopia Institute, a nonprofit that represents thousands of organic farmers, told the Washington Post. "Thousands of small organic farmers across the United States depend on the USDA organic system working. Unfortunately, right now, it's not working for small farmers or for consumers."
Those consumers pay almost double for organic milk. According to the Post, "Organic dairy sales amounted to $6 billion last year in the United States." And while Aurora is coming under scrutiny again (it settled a suit with the USDA a decade ago), it looks like many consumers are still not sure what "organic" really entails — and what they're paying for. The USDA is already calling for major changes and at least one state is taking the matter to heart. Colorado is the first state that will hire its own USDA personnel and train existing teams to ensure that large and small dairy operations alike meet the USDA's stringent organic standards.