In a rather stunning turnaround for the “lamestream” media, the Washington Post has conducted a rather extensive and fulsome investigation into the organic milk industry.  Why?  Well, by doing so they expose some of the nefarious actions of milk producers, the lack of effective oversight of the industry and pretty much shreds public trust that the label “USDA Organic” ought to invoke in all of us.  Now, I’m assuming that the Post is also investigating Trump’s Russian connections and hasn’t given up on this issue and even though organic milk might not be the most important issue facing we the people today, it’s the kind of journalism that, before the Fake News internet, used to be conducted by pretty much every major newspaper in the country. 

The Post’s investigation isn’t based on third party hand-offs or online articles.  No.  They actually sent folks out to Colorado and other places to see how strictly the dairy milk producers were following the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s requirements in order to label milk (and by implication, other food products) “USDA Organic.”  Their results might be termed “sketchy at best” with all sorts of the kinds of corporate “explanations” and “excuses” we so often hear when shit goes wrong in corporate America (United Airlines anyone?) since the Post investigators found major discrepancies and violations.   I’ll give you a few highlights from what is a fairly long article but if you’d like to go directly there, go right ahead.  I won’t be insulted. 

Right off, I have to say that France, Germany and other European Union member countries resolved the “organic” issue over two decades ago.  In fact, in June of 1991.  We here in the United States didn’t “resolve” the organic labeling issue until 2000 when “USDA Organic” was adopted which was meant to guarantee that food products showing this label were produced using organic principles and methods, i.e. not using growth hormones, not using certain pesticides, practicing approved methods of organic production, & etc.  The organic market now totals some $40 billion annually here in the U.S. and is growing rapidly.  Organic produce – fruits and vegetables - typically costs more than conventional produce and organic milk costs nearly twice as much as non-organic milk.  The organic milk industry racked up $6 billion in sales last year.

The Post article focuses on Aurora Organic Dairy, a part of the High Plains dairy complex in Greely, Colorado, and it is huge.  It is home to more than 15,000 cows making it more than 100 times the size of your typical small organic milk farmer’s heard.  Aurora supplies both Walmart and Costco house brand labels of organic milk and advertises that “We take great pride in our commitment to organic, and in our ability to meet the rigorous criteria of the USDA organic regulations.” 

The reality, however, doesn’t quite live up to this claim.  (Are you surprised?)  The critical issue in the production of organic milk is grazing.  Organic dairies are required by USDA regulations to allow cows to graze – free range – outside on grass throughout the grazing season, generally from April to September or October although the grazing season does vary depending on the region of the U.S. where dairy farms are located.  Cows, according to USDA organic rules, are supposed to be grass-fed, not confined to barns and feedlots during this period.   But the Post’s investigators, during visits to Aurora’s High Plains complex over eight days last year, found that no more than 10% of the herd were observed actually outside grazing.  A high resolution satellite photo taken in mid-July shows that there were only a few hundred cows free-range grazing.  A spokesperson for Aurora dismissed these observations as “drive bys,” anomalies and not indicative of their organic practices. 

But subsequent visits also showed that Aurora wasn’t following the USDA’s organic guidelines.  In fact, Aurora was sued by a consumer group and the USDA found that Aurora was in “willful violation” of the government’s organic standards. A settlement agreement was reached that allowed the company to continue to operate.  In 2012, a class action suit against Aurora was settled by a $7.2 payment and the company admitted no wrongdoing.  One of the essential problems with enforcement is that USDA's rules allow milk producers to hire other private companies to inspect their operations and their measure adherence to organic guidelines.  Although these companies are licensed by the USDA, an inspection is typically done once a year and arranged days or weeks in advance so it’s not beyond the pale of implausibility that Aurora and other organic milk producers could simply put all their cows out to pasture the day of or the day before the scheduled annual inspection. Only 5% of the inspections are conducted on an unannounced basis. 

It is fairly easy to determine which cows have been raised according to organic standards and which have not.  Grass fed cows tend to have higher levels of two fats in their systems – conjugated linoleic acid and alpha-linoleic acid, an Omega-3 fat.  In addition, linoleic acid, an Omega-6 fat, tends to be lower in grass fed cows.   In scientific tests, conducted by the University of Virginia, two smaller dairies ranked at the top of the organic list: Prigel’s Family Creamery and Snowville Creamery.  Milk from mega-dairies that supply the Lucerne brand and 365 Organic, two brands available in nearly all national grocery stores, ranked at the very bottom.  Large organic brands, Horizon and Organic Valley ranked in the middle of the two extremes.  Aurora’s milk ranked just above the tests for conventional, i.e. non-organic, milk on two of the measures and ranked slightly better than conventional milk but below the other “USDA Organic” samples.

One of the significant impacts of large organic milk production farms, is how they tend to make it much more difficult for smaller dairy farmers.  The growth of mega-dairies that fall short of meeting organic standards can produce milk more cheaply than small organic dairy operations. Smaller farmers tend to adhere much more strictly to the USDA Organic guidelines since they are generally suppliers to local markets and tend to be more accessible to their customers than are the large mega-dairies.  As Pete Hardin editor of the “Milkweed” states: “The mom and pop – the smaller traditional family diaries – who are following the pasture rules are seeing their prices erode.  It is creating a heck of a mess.”   


NOTE:  This mess goes right to the heart of the public’s mistrust of government or as Ronald Reagan put it: “Government isn’t the solution; Government is the problem.”  But this WashPo expose reveals that it’s not the government who is cheating or lying to us.  It’s our corporate Capitalist Free Market Corporate “partners” who are.  This is not in any way an unusual situation and such corporate lying and cheating faces us every single day.  (New Neutrality, anyone?) And this is just how Congress – beholden to corporate donors for just about everything – designs our system to function.  Is it any wonder that time and time again we discover that Government is blamed for one scandal after another but the real story - since Federal, State and Local Governments basically outsource most of their functions to private contractor companies – is that it’s corporations who have simply lied to us and cheated?  But this is essentially who “we” are in the 21st Century.  Not only are we beholden to the whims and mechanizations of corporate America but they are so deep into the directing of our everyday lives that we have been so accustomed to it that we basically no longer notice it.  

Have A Good Day!  If you buy organic milk, as we do, be sure to get what you’re paying for.  


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