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Yesterday MNB ran a story that said the following…

The New York Times reports that a nonprofit group called the Cornucopia Institute is ranking “organic milk and dairy products based on federal organic standards as well as environmental and humane concerns.”

The goal, according to the organization, is to put some teeth into government regulations about organics that it perceives the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is doing little to enforce. "This is a tool to help consumers shop with firms that represent their values,” Mark Kastel, a founder of the group, tells the Times.

The paper reports that “to get at the heart of the producers' actual practices, the institute sent a survey by certified mail to known marketers of organic dairy products in the United States. The survey consisted of 19 questions about the care and feeding of their cows.
“Using the producers' answers, the institute ranked more than 65 brands, with 18 receiving the highest rating.” Ironically, there were 10 companies that received no rating because they did not respond – and they included “the best-known brands: Aurora Organic Dairy and three owned by Dean Foods (Horizon Organic, Organic Cow of Vermont and Alta Dena), which, the institute estimates, have a 60 percent to 70 percent share of the market.”

According to the Times story, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) is “distressed” by the survey and the attention it has garnered, and has criticized it for being nonscientific and “sowing seeds of distrust in organic farming and organic products.”

Our comment: The OTA had better be careful, or it might be viewed as protecting its members even at the risk of misinforming the consumers who count on products being what manufacturers say they are. That’s the kind of perception that sows seeds of mistrust, not a consumer group trying to get at the facts.

We’re rerunning the story in its entirety because it generated a number of emails, all of them saying pretty much the same thing – that the Cornucopia Institute was not what it seemed to be, and that we were giving it way too much credibility. (So was the New York Times.)

One MNB user wrote:

I'm a global supply chain projects manager at Whole Foods Market and have been watching the milk industry for a while now. The Cornucopia Institute is a shill organization that seems primarily focused on boosting Organic Valley and denigrating Horizon.

Its founder, Kastel, is a paid consultant for Organic Valley. One of his primary attacks on Horizon is their use of milk from Aurora Dairy (which complies with organic standards, though it still looks like (and generally is) a factory farm.

The story that they don't report is that OV buys milk from Aurora as well. And they buy milk from Horizon. In fact, all large organic producers buy raw milk from each other at times to round out production.

Another MNB user wrote:

The Cornucopia “survey”…was a 19-question, open-ended push poll that almost all of the large organic dairies declined to answer because its conclusions were foregone. The non-respondents represent 60 to 70 percent of the organic dairy products sold in this country. Mark Kastel of Cornucopia chose to rate the non-respondents anyway, which is hardly objective.

Horizon has two large certified organic farms and 325 farmer partners, some of whom milk as few as a dozen cows. Another 179 family farms are underwritten by Horizon as they transition to certified organic production, a three-year process.

The truth is, with organic dairy demand growing 20 percent a year, large farms are a necessary part of the equation if organic milk is to remain widely available and affordable. The milk from those farms is as organic as the milk from the dozen-cow farms, with lower environmental impact and healthier working conditions for both animals and people.

Another MNB user wrote:

Before you place too much faith in the practices of the Cornucopia Institute, I would suggest you do your own little investigation. As a Buyer of Organic Produce, I have had a "run-in" with these folks and found their tactics to be less than honorable and their beliefs to be misguided. I am very leery of anyone that might paint them in a good light. While the OTA may not have all the best intentions for the growth of this enormous category, I firmly believe that the Cornucopia Institute is even more devious about their motives and information to the consumer.

In addition, we spoke to someone yesterday who read the cover letter that went out with the survey – and not only did that letter make clear the Institute’s forgone conclusions, but it even had what was called a “threatening tone” about Kastel’s intentions in terms of publicizing the results.

The unpleasant truth is that we didn’t check out the Cornucopia Institute before reporting on the Times story – it was one in the morning on the west coast, we were working on about four hours sleep and a fast-approaching deadline, and we just did the piece assigning Kastel and the Times too much credibility. (The NYT writer may or may not be able to offer the same explanation.) It’s no excuse, though. We should have known better.

However, the interesting thing is that we also got the following email yesterday, suggesting that while the survey may be skewed, there is certainly room for multiple opinions in the organics industry:

I can tell you that indeed the perception by many of my peers is that the OTA is firmly in the pocket of big business - they are not a consumer group, but in fact a lobby group for big business. The very fact that they supported the watered down version of the rule via the Harvey case is proof. Gee, now my certified organic products MAY contain "non organic ingredients IF the organic product is not commercially available". Please define 'commercially unavailable' when you're a huge processor like Kellogg? That could mean virtually anything that doesn't meet your cost profile or ease of procurement.

My feelings about the Cornucopia Institute are mixed, but they are on target with this. The public has the perception that organic is good - on many levels for many reasons, but the truth is much different. The heart of the organic label is rapidly deteriorating, and more and more organic products are being produced by large agri-business that follows the letter of the Organic Rule, but not the intent. And I believe that the OTA supports this trend.

All organics are not created equal and that's why informed consumers are looking to local sources they can trust - even if they're not 'certified organic'. To supply a multi-national the size of Wal-Mart means that some really large scale farming and production needs to happen. And even though the OTA states that "Organic agriculture can be a lifeline for small farms because it offers an alternative market where sellers can command fair prices for crops", how many of the 'small farms' can afford to compete with organic large scale farms?

MNB user Tom Kroupa put the essential debate in a nutshell:

Ever since the food conglomerates purchased organic companies we have seen them lobby congress to reduce the organic standards we in the industry fought so hard to create.

So other organizations see this and are concerned enough to re-instate those standards.

Whatever the motivation, there certainly seems to be a reasonable debate that should and must take place about standards.

To be continued…
KC's View: