Organic milk goes corporate

The industry now faces legal battles, accusations regarding quality, and conflicts over what “organic” really means
Cartons of Horizon organic milk are displayed for sale at a supermarket in New York, U.S., on Wednesday, July 25, 2012. U.S. consumers may pay 3 percent to 4 percent more for food next year, as the effects of the country?s worst drought since the 1950s work their way onto supermarket shelves, the Department of Agriculture said in its first forecast for 2013. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Moo-ving on up
Scott Eells/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Horizon Organic, the largest supplier of organic milk in the United States, features a cartoon logo on its cartons of a smiling cow jumping over a globe. The company refers to itself as an ecologically responsible group of animal lovers committed to good health and great organic milk. That all may be true, but behind the pleasant portrait is a big business that is far more corporate than granola.

The organic-milk business is worth $2.4 billion a year in Canada and the United States, and it’s growing. The industry has emerged with no shortage of headaches these days, from legal battles to accusations of putting profits before quality to conflicts over what “organic” really means.

Perhaps the strangest sign of just how competitive the industry has become is that Horizon, owned by the multi-billion-dollar company Dean Foods Co., recently sued Organic Valley, the second-largest organic milk co-operative. One of Horizon’s former managers took a similar job at Organic Valley. Horizon says that the employee had access to a confidential supplier list and other trade secrets and strategies. In a written statement, Organic Valley called the lawsuit, which has made headlines in the U.S., “meritless and without basis.” The case is still pending in the U.S. District Court for Colorado.

Horizon itself has come under scrutiny, and faces legal issues, over its marketing of an additive in its milk called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid commonly found in oily fish. Horizon’s packaging features information about the brain benefits of DHA, and references a scientific paper. The author, however, has said her work doesn’t support those health claims. The Cornucopia Institute, an American non-profit that supports organic agriculture and family farming, called for an investigation into Horizon for its use of the additive. The retailer Whole Foods, meanwhile, is reviewing health claims regarding DHA. Dean Foods has said it “will likely” remove the scientific reference from its cartons when it changes packaging next year.

Amidst this controversy, even broader concerns are emerging over just how organic “organic milk” actually is. Both the U.S. and Canada have regulations as to what qualifies as organic milk, including requirements that the cows consume organic feed and graze on fresh grass.

The Cornucopia Institute has been pushing the Food and Drug Administration for tougher enforcement of organic rules. Its co-founder, Mark Kastel, says that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) hasn’t enforced new requirements that all cattle have adequate access to pasture to graze for several months of the year. Kastel also claims the USDA has allowed larger factory farms to bring in conventional cattle and “convert” them to organic. “They can buy these conventional cattle at one year old and convert them to organic in their second year,” he says, noting that the baby calves would have been fed antibiotics. It is “unfair to the organic farmers who struggle to raise their calves without the crutch of drugs.”

Lawrence Andres is the owner of the Ontario-based organic milk company Harmony Organic. He says that the organic milk business is being hurt by firms that put advertising and profit ahead of quality. He calls DHA, for instance, a “buzzword” companies use to make their milk more attractive to consumers who don’t know where to begin when buying organic. “Traditionally, large companies don’t believe in this designer-food thing, and they feel, ‘Let’s challenge the trend and maybe we can steal a little bit of market share from the original companies,’ ” he says. Andres helped start Organic Meadow, now his direct competitor and one of the largest organic milk co-operatives in the country. He left the company more than a decade ago over “philosophical differences,” as Organic Meadow looked to expand.

As the demand for organic milk grows, a more industrial approach to farming seems all but inevitable. And this is bound to upset devotees who see “bigger” as antithetical to the spirit of organic food. As Andres says, “This is an emotional business.”