ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

Surf & Turf: The Good, Bad and Ugly

By now, you've probably heard about or seen the video released by the Humane Society depicting the unspeakably grotesque, not to mention, illegal, inhumane treatment of animals at a slaughterhouse in California. Workers rammed the animals with a fork lift and stun guns to try and get downer cows to stand up and qualify for a meat inspection so they could be slaughtered. This meat was destined for school lunch programs.

This video was shot by an employee working undercover with the humane organization and was so shocking it elicited a comment from the USDA Secretary. Even in the wake of Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, continual scandals about e. coli in meat, repeated embargoes on US meat exports because of inadequate inspections, this type of thing occurs. The USDA is asleep at the wheel - or worse, has put on blinders to avoid the obvious.

Lest we get direly pessimistic, there was faintly encouraging news on the fish front, where more retailers are moving towards certified sustainable fisheries. The Marine Stewardship Council is the recognized certifier in this field. The Economist reports that:

Rupert Howes, the MSC’s chief executive, says that while it took seven years for the first 500 MSC-labelled products to appear, the next 500 took only another nine months.

Today there are 1,123 products with an MSC label around the world. Although consumer recognition remains low today, many wholesale buyers recognise the label, and demand for sustainably sourced fish is growing fast.

Wal-Mart has taken a major step, with one-quarter of its seafood counter now MSC certified (and prompting a mea culpa from one friend of mine). If you include fish Wal-Mart sells that are on the way to certification, that moves up to 50-60 percent. Globally, MSC certified stocks represent only 7 percent of the fish supply, but they are fast increasing -- and more importantly, putting increasing pressure on retailers to move in this direction.

With the USDA losing credibility, might a private regime similar to MSC's have more credibility in the meat market and with consumers? Will private certification schemes fill the humane vacuum? Or will we rely on assurances from the USDA that it will get things right?

- Samuel Fromartz

Pennsylvania Does About-Face on Milk Labeling

Under pressure from consumer groups, dairy associations and farmers, Pennsylvania did a 180-degree turn Thursday and decided not to limit milk labeling standards. (See our previous story for an in-depth look at this issue).

The decision means that farmers and processors can continue to state on milk labels that they do not use synthetic growth hormones - rBST or rBGH - a label that many consumers seek out. The state had sought to limit those statements beginning in February.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports:

The ban was to take effect Feb. 1, to the dismay of consumer activists and many smaller dairies who choose not to inject their cows with hormones. But the move was superseded by new standards issued today, after a review by the office of Gov. Rendell.

Rendell ordered the agency to review the policy after consumer outcry, his spokesman said

"The governor's position was relatively simple: he wanted the labels to be accurate and informative," said Rendell's press secretary Chuck Ardo.

"It's basically a complete back-down," said Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at the nonprofit group Consumers Union, which had opposed the ban.

Given the firestorm over this issue, expect to see similar "absence" claims once cloned animals and their progeny hit the food supply: "This milk produced without clones and without rBGH".

- Samuel Fromartz

Cloning a Post, Cloning a Post, Cloning...

For those interested in the flood of news and analysis on the cloning decision by the FDA, check out the Ethicurean's "issue watch" round up of articles, blogs and press releases on the subject. (I've cloned their bovine graphic at left). Once again, the blog is proving itself as the must-eat salad bar for food-related news and opinion.

Now my 2 cents:

For now, it appears, mainstream food companies are being very cautious about the cloning technology, now wanting to upset or get ahead of consumers. But it will be interesting to see what happens as more progeny of clones appear. Will they enter into the food supply in a stealth manner, like genetically modified crops? Business Week pointed out that Monsanto targeted industrial crops for GMOs so that consumers would be one-step removed from them: they appear largely as components in food ingredients (as animal feed, high fructose corn syrup, and soy derived products such as vegetables oils and lecithin) or now as ethanol. So pehaps the first cloned products will be industrial dried milk products used in processed foods. When the public is aware of GMOS, they tend to get queasy -- hence the dramatic rise in demand for milk from cows that have not been treated with genetically modified growth hormones.

While GMOs took over the US commodity corn and soybean market, they are still highly controversial overseas. Given the extreme difficulty US beef exports have had overseas in places like South Korea and Japan, due to concerns about the USDA's inadequate inspection regime and mad cow disease, cloning won't help this market. (Asia has shifted largely to Australian sources). The US is creating a high-tech food supply that the rest of the world would rather do without. And don't be fooled that this technology is about feeding the world: it is extremely expensive and creates intellectual property for the owners behind it. What it does not do is create the means for food-scarce people to feed themselves.

So what's the alternative? Organic, since the cloned animals are (and progeny will likely be) banned from organic methods under USDA regulations, according to this National Organic Program memo (pdf) and Q&A (pdf) on the subject.

- Samuel Fromartz

USDA Gives Update on Organic Pasture Rule

A new organic pasture regulation has been fully reviewed by the USDA, bringing it one-step closer to completion, Barbara Robinson, deputy administrator for the USDA's National Organic Program (NOP), said Wednesday.

In an update at the National Organic Standards Board meeting underway in Arlington, Virginia, Robinson said the the NOP is working on the supplemental language to the regulation, dealing with the economic impact of the regulation, compliance with the paperwork reduction act, and impact on small producers. "We're going to get this done shortly and then it goes over the OMB (Office of Management and Budget)," she said.

USDA expects to run into some issues with OMB, which has viewed every organic regulation except for materials as a "major rule" that needs extra vetting. That means OMB will likely take another 60 days for review, in which time Congress will also get to look at it. Robinson said she plans to visit with OMB when USDA first sends over the regulation for review to impress the importance of it.

The upshot seems to be that the regulation won't be out of OMB until late first-quarter, which presumably is when it will first be published for comment.

A wide coalition of organic dairy farmers is pushing for a requirement that ruminants receive at least 30 percent of their nutritional needs from fresh grass during the growing season, but not less than 120 days.   Currently, the organic regulations only require "access to pasture," which meant a cow might rarely get a blade of fresh grass and live out its productive life on feedlots. A clear pasture regulation would end that practice, though it is unknown what the final rule will actually say.

Organic dairy farmers have been pushing for a change in this regulation since at least 2000, and the new rule change language has been under review at the USDA since 2005.

Amid Protests, Pennsylvania Shelves Milk Action

Pennsylvania has decided to delay its order drastically limiting what processors can say on milk labels, due to a rising public backlash, the St. Louis Post-Gazette reports. But the stay may only last for one month.

The issue had blindsided Governor Ed Rendell, who received complaints about his Agriculture Secretary's decision. "The governor's office, which was not involved in the initial decision, will participate in reviewing the new rules 'both in the way they were promulgated and their effect,'" Rendell's press secretary said in the press report.

Opponents of the decision are still wary, since the delay is only temporary. The key issue is whether the state will widen the panel reviewing the issue to include legitimate representatives of consumer groups who oppose the state action.

"There was some level of surprise," Chris Ryder, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, said of the opposition to the state's new labeling restrictions. "We weren't anticipating quite this response."

Pennsylvania's Milk Cover-Up

By Samuel Fromartz

If one trend has been clear in recent years it's the desire by consumers to know where their food comes from and how it's produced.

Product labels – whether organic, local, or produced without antibiotics and hormones – provide a way for consumers to get that information and make a choice.

So why is Pennsylvania swimming against the tide? Late last month, the state Department of Agriculture told 19 dairies that they cannot use language such as "Our farmers’ pledge: no artificial growth hormones," or "From cows not treated with the growth hormone rBST," starting January 1, 2008.

Ohio, New Jersey and Indiana are reportedly mulling similar restrictions. If this occurs, consumers will be denied the right to choose the milk they want and farmers banned from describing their practices.

Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Dennis Wolff said the action was promoted by concerns among "consumer groups," farmers and processors, though the action was entirely in line with the policy position of Monsanto, which makes synthetic bovine growth hormone (rBGH or rBST).

Surveys clearly show consumers desire more transparency — not less — on milk labels. Lake Research Partners found 80 percent of consumers supported the labeling of rBGH-free milk products. The Natural Marketing Institute found that 53 percent of shoppers look for dairy products free of artificial hormones. And Opinion Research found 81 percent of respondents would prefer to buy dairy products derived from cows that do not receive synthetic hormones, assuming little or no pricing difference.

Critics and scientists have raised questions about a possible link between rBGH and a cancer-promoting hormone in humans -- a link denied by Monsanto and other scientists. What is known is that the drug does increase the risk of animal illness, though it also boosts milk production by about 10 percent, which is the reason it is used. Although the Food and Drug Administration approved rBGH in 1993, it has been banned in the European Union, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

Wolff argues that since the synthetic bovine growth hormones are indistinguishable from naturally occurring hormones and cannot be detected in milk a label that indicates their absence would be impossible to verify. All milk is also tested to be free of antibiotics, so there's no reason to label their absence either.

But Pennsylvania's action also limits statements about production practices, making it impossible for consumers to identify producers who follow a regime they agree with. Starting in January, a farmer cannot say on a milk label, "I don't use rBGH or antibiotics on my farm" – even though this statement may be factually correct.

Such production claims can be verified. Inspections are required by law for organic farms, for example. Conventional milk producers can issue legal affidavits about their practices under penalty of fraud. But Pennsylvania closed off this avenue by saying that such affidavits were now unacceptable as a basis for label claims.

Organic milk companies have not been exempt from the action. Aurora Organic Dairy and Horizon Organic have gotten letters from the state.

This whole debate isn't new, but it has gained steam as national companies sought out milk produced without rBGH and crimped Monsanto's market for the drug. Dean Foods, the largest milk processor in the nation, has switched some plants to rBGH free milk production. Starbucks, Safeway, and Kroger are going that way too; Chipotle Mexican Grill also plans to convert its entire cheese supply by the end of the year. Many natural food stores have long sold milk produced without synthetic hormones.

By stating they avoid milk produced with rBGH, these companies are following federal directives on the matter. As early as 1994, when the Food and Drug Administration approved Monsanto’s synthetic growth hormone, the FDA allowed production claims, such as "from cows not treated with rBST."

For the past several years, Monsanto has sought to limit these absence claims because they believe they disparage competing milk. In 2003, it sued Oakhurst Dairy in Maine over a label statement that read, "Our farmers' pledge: no artificial growth hormones." The suit was settled out of court, when Oakhurst added the qualifying language: "FDA states: No significant difference in milk from cows treated with artificial growth hormone."

Last year, Monsanto appealed to the FDA to review the approved label wording for rBGH and also sought action from the Federal Trade Commission regarding advertising of rBGH free milk.

The FDA declined to act, noting that it would only intervene in cases where fraudulent claims – as opposed to product descriptions – were made on the milk label. In dismissing Monsanto's complaint, the FTC also found no instance where a national company made false claims about rBST.

Having failed to limit the label in the federal arena, it now appears Monsanto is lobbying state governments to cover up the labels and reduce consumer choice.

Pennsylvania was the first to fall. If other states follow, consumer choice and a farmer's right to free speech will be dealt a blow.

But consumer groups, farmer organizations and milk processors are fighting back, first off with a letter writing campaign to the governor. Expect more action ahead.

Back From Tahiti!

I wish. Actually I've been up to my eyeballs in other projects. Still, a few things have caught my attention, such as the dictatorial decision by Pennsylvania to ban certain milk labels describing hormone- and antibiotic-free production practices. A flurry of reports have appeared here and here and here. I'm looking into it and hope to post more soon.

Organic History, Circa 1963

Here's one of the earliest recorded discussions of organic food by regulators in the state of California. Ray Green, manager of the organic program for the state department of agriculture, tells me he saved it on the way to the shredder. Click image to enlarge:


As you can see, California took a pass on deciding what Organically Grown meant. Although Europe had earlier certification schemes defining the organic method, the first one that got traction in the US was begun by JI Rodale, through his Organic Gardening magazine in the early 1970s. (If anyone knows of anything earlier, feel free to post a comment).

What Makes a Cow Organic?

The following was written by an organic dairy farmer in Truxton,N.Y., who is also active in the Northeast Organic Dairy Farmers Association. ChewsWise welcomes comments from other organic producers or industry participants with varying points of view.

By Kathie Arnold

What makes a cow organic?  The answer has certainly been controversial over the last several years, especially when it comes to grazing cows on pasture. However, I would submit that the National Organic Program regulation, which states that all ruminants must have access to pasture, has been clear right from the start to the vast majority of organic dairy farms and certifiers.

Only a small minority of operators and certifiers took advantage of the absence of a definitively worded regulation to minimize grazing; they also loosely interpreted, if not disregarded, the several citations to pasture requirements in the USDA regulations. This failure to come to the same understanding and application as everyone else seems to stem from a profit motive—to make more organic milk for the marketplace. For example, documents that have recently come to light show that the first operation of Aurora Organic Dairy, in Platteville, Colorado, apparently started out with about 70 acres of pasture for the 5,000 cows they were transitioning.  Their self-serving interpretation of the regulation - “all ruminants must have access to pasture” - was that the livestock just needed to have access to pasture at some point in their life.

Wherever organic livestock operations have failed to provide significant pasture for to their animals, there have been other organic dairies in those same regions—Idaho, Colorado, California—that do. Geography is no excuse for withholding pasture. Rather, the practice reflects the management and set-up of the farm. If the will is there, so is the way.

The National Organic Standards Board has made recommendations on pasture for years, clarifying what "access to pasture" meant. For example, the NOSB adopted a pasture recommendation in October of 2001 that stated in part: “Ruminant livestock must have access to graze pasture during the months of the year when pasture can provide edible forage, and the grazed feed must provide a significant portion of the total feed requirements.” Anyone who could not understand that language was either not trying, or was not going to understand unless compelled by regulation or the marketplace.

Although the NOSB in 2005 recommended a minimum of 120 days grazing, that figure alone was ripe for abuse. The cows can fill up at the feed bunks in the barn or feedlot, then be put out on pasture for an hour or so and the operation can meet 1 of those 120 days. That is why organic dairy farmers have pushed to require a minimum 30% dry matter intake from pasture for the growing season, which means the cows must get 30 percent of their nutritional needs from fresh grass. With only a number of required days on pasture, but no minimum pasture intake figure, there will still be no assurance of real pasture for all organic dairy animals. These proposals are currently being considered by the USDA.

Pasture places dairy animals in their natural environment, with their feed in its fresh, natural form; it also allows for behavior that is innate to the animals.  It not only improves the health of the animals, and helps produce topsoil for the earth, but it also benefits the consumer in terms of increased quantities of healthful essential fatty acids and vitamins in milk. Pasture most surely makes a cow organic.

Organic Diary Farmers Blast USDA, Aurora

The Federation of Organic Dairy Farmers (FOOD Farmers) issued a blistering attack (pdf) on the USDA and Aurora Organic Dairy (AOD) Tuesday, criticizing the plea bargain they had reached settling 14 alleged violations of the organic regulations by Aurora. The charges were made in a publicly released letter to Acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner.

FOOD Farmers is a coalition of the three main organic dairy producer associations in the US, including the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Association, the Midwest Organic Dairy Producers Association and the Western Organic Dairy Producers Association (of which Aurora is a member).

The letter states:

We are extremely disturbed by the Consent Agreement between USDA and AOD for many reasons. It does not bring closure to this situation. If Aurora is guilty of these alleged violations and is allowed to not only continue in operation but to continue with no sanction ... they should be de-certified and fined to the full extent. Given the “nature and extent” of the alleged violations which continued over 3 ½ years, any fine of AOD should be the maximum amount allowed by law and AOD should not be permitted to ship organic milk for five years, in accordance with section 205.662 of the NOP regulations on noncompliance.

205.662(g) states that “In addition to suspension or revocation, any certified operations that: (1) Knowingly sells or labels a product as organic, except in accordance with the Act, shall be subject to a civil penalty of not more that $10,000 per violation.” The regulation does not say “may” but rather it says “shall” which would indicate that fines are mandatory. If Aurora is not guilty of the alleged violations, they should be cleared of any violation and confidence in NOP’s ability to enforce the organic standards will be restored.

The group stated that the agreement sets an "unacceptable precedent," since it shows that "major, multiple violations occurring over several years" can be negotiated away without penalty. Further, given the fact that smaller dairies have been de-certified for non-compliance, it can be viewed as "preferential treatment for a large-scale operation."

The statement is significant, not only because FOOD Farmers represent the vast majority of organic dairy farmers but also because it offers insights into the working of the organic market, regulations and USDA behavior in this case.

In another development, the Cornucopia Institute disclosed that Aurora has threatened to sue Cornucopia, the Organic Consumers Association and the Center for Food Safety for defamation for charging the company engaged in consumer fraud.

Expect more fireworks ahead.

- Samuel Fromartz

A Few "Inconvenient Truths" about Aurora Organic

In a rebuttal to my Op-Ed in the Rocky Mountain News, Aurora Organic Dairy President Mark Retzloff would have us believe that he has the best interests of organic agriculture and consumers in mind.

He does not. 

This dispute started because organic dairy farmers around the nation were alarmed at Aurora's organic dairy practices. To be sure, these farmers were competing against Aurora, but they wanted that competition to occur on a level playing field.

Aurora had tilted the field in its own favor by skirting organic rules.

Aurora admitted it was confining its animals to feedlots (though saying it was still meeting the bare minimum requirement of "access to pasture"). Aurora was quite open about its policy, arguing in public statements that it did not believe pasture was beneficial to the health of its cows.

Retzloff says Aurora began to change its farm more than two years ago to increase pasture and that the USDA investigation, and subsequent threat to decertify Aurora, had nothing to do with it. Despite his protests, it's difficult to reach any other conclusion.

Aurora had taken a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) and in 2003 transitioned it to organic production. It had no plans to drastically reduce the size of its animal herd, as it is doing now under continued treat of decertification.

According to a document by the Colorado Department of Agriculture, Aurora's certifier:

AOD's 2003-04 and 2005 history sheets demonstrate that it planned to have two and a half times as much pasture available for grazing in 2005 as it had planned when initially certified for 2003-04. At the same time, the 2005 history sheet shows that AOD planned to double its herd size, resulting in a significantly lower cow-per-acre of pasture ratio. (Colorado Department of Agriculture, "Statement of Position," May 22, 2007, p. 25, emphasis added).

Had this dispute not occurred, Aurora's 5,000 cow operation would have been significantly larger.

As for "inconvenient truths," one subject Retzloff does not address was Aurora's reliance on improperly transitioned organic animals to produce milk on its facility. It agreed to stop selling milk from those animals in its consent decree with the USDA.

Based upon the way it transitioned the CAFO, Aurora was required to source cows that were organic from the last third of gestation – in other words, cows whose mothers had been organic from at least the last trimester of pregnancy.

It did not. It sourced conventional cows, which are given the usual regime of antibiotics, medicines and conventional feed, thereby cutting its costs. These cows were then transitioned to organic production over a one-year period.

Again, it broke the rules to gain a competitive advantage not available to those farmers following the regulations.

I applaud the conversion of more land to organic agriculture, nor do I think that organic products should be priced at a predetermined point. What I do object to is cutting corners in organic methods to reach "affordability" – and that is what Aurora was doing.

They did so to build sales and raise profits, competing unfairly not only with many other small family farmers but other large-scale farms that are following regulations. This not only undermines the market, it defrauds consumers. The USDA was right to demand an end to it.

- Samuel Fromartz

Big Organic Bull

By Samuel Fromartz

The dust up over Aurora Organic Dairy's alleged misdeeds in the organic dairy business has kicked into full gear.

The latest missive flew out Tuesday, as one of  Aurora's certifiers, Quality Assurance International (QAI), said it did nothing wrong even though a farm and milk it certified were cited by the USDA in its Aurora complaint.

For those not following this sordid saga, the USDA had threatened to decertify Aurora in April, citing 14 instances of willful violations of regulations. Aurora then reached a plea bargain with the USDA last month that contained provisions for the company to stop selling some milk, remove some improperly transitioned organic animals from its operation and increase grazing rates for its herd. They are the largest producer of private-label organic milk in the nation.

Significantly, the plea  contained no admissions about the 14 allegations of wrongdoing: it only states that the company was fully certified (ie, the organic certifiers knew what was going on). And secondly, there were "inconsistencies" between its Organic System Plan and USDA regulations -- that is, between what it was doing and what it was supposed to be doing under organic regulations.

Meanwhile, the watch-dog (and attack-dog) Cornucopia institute that had first brought a complaint against Aurora two years ago added the certifiers to a new filing, alleging they should have known the company was skirting organic regulations. Aside from QAI, the Colorado Department of Agriculture also certified Aurora's facility.

Now QAI has pointed a finger back at Cornucopia, and indirectly at Aurora and the Colorado certifiers. It stated:

Contrary to the spin asserted by the Cornucopia Institute, QAI has not been accused of any wrongdoing by the United States Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) Agriculture Marketing Service (“AMS”), and there is no suggestion by the USDA that QAI did anything wrong in its certification activities.

In the complaint, however, the USDA did cite Aurora's Dublin, Texas farm that QAI certified, saying:

During the spring and early summer of 2006, AOD (Aurora  Organic Dairy) entered conventional dairy animals into organic milk production at its Dublin, Texas, facility before they completed the required one-year period of continuous organic management, which began sometime after September 30,2005, in willful violation of 7 C.F.R. § 205.236(a)(2).

So what is QAI's defense? One source tells me these animals in question had organic certificates from the Colorado Department of Agriculture and QAI had to accept them. As its press release states: "By law, QAI is required to accept all certification decisions of other accredited certifiers." In other words, the Colorado certifiers were to blame. But this defense amounts to turning a blind eye on wrongdoing rather than trying to correct it. Frankly, I expect more of certifiers.

Meanwhile, Colorado is pointing a finger at the USDA, with a state agriculture official telling Sustainable Food News ($) that "Some of those (organic) regulations lack a great deal of clarity.” Further, "If this doesn’t demonstrate the need for additional USDA organic dairy training procedures, I don’t know what does.” (Other dairy certifiers don't seem to have these issues).

So what does all this add up to? USDA alleged Aurora was breaking the law. Aurora only admitted its certified farm plan and practices needed to be reworked. QAI said it did nothing wrong. Colorado said the problem was with USDA regulations and training.

In short, every party involved in this mess sounds like a two-bit capo out of the Sopranos: "We didn't do nothin' wrong! It was da other guy!"

Hence, my picture of the bull above.

Image source: North American South Devon Association