by Julie Wilson
Expected to reach an estimated $35 billion in profits this year, the organic market has become attractive to food companies on all sides of the spectrum, opening up the door for potential abuses.
Under-the-table financial contributions to politicians in Washington have allowed Big Food companies to hijack the organic industry by selling products blatantly in violation of strict organic standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The USDA fails to prosecute violators due to giant corporations’ lobbyists pressuring the agency to “favor their preferred industrial model of food production,” according to Mark Kastel, the Senior Farm Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute.
Considered one of the “largest fraud investigations,” the Wisconsin-based farm policy research group has worked diligently to uncover persistent violations, filing formal legal complaints against livestock operations producing milk, meat and eggs, accusing them of fraudulently marketing such products as organic.
Big Food selling organic products derived from animals kept in confinement, blatantly violating USDA organic standards
Federally mandated organic standards state that living conditions for livestock must “accommodate the health and natural behavior of… animals,” meaning that chickens and cows absolutely must have year-round access to green pastures for grazing, shade, sunlight and fresh water and live unconfined.
Widely distributed brands like Horizon (owned by Dean Foods), have been caught violating these standards, prohibiting “legitimate grazing” and restricting animals’ access to the outdoors.
Horizon (White Wave), the largest selling organic milk brand, was purchased in 2004 by Dean Foods, a giant agribusiness raking in an estimated $11 billion in sales. Dean Foods also happens to be the biggest conventional dairy marketer in the country. The corporate-owned Idaho farm that supplies milk for the Horizon label was originally a conventional factory-dairy that was converted into an organic production; however, cows were given no access to pastures for grazing as legally mandated.
A complaint filed by Cornucopia was closed without a USDA regulator ever visiting the dairy facility. However, the group’s efforts didn’t stop there. After years of inaction by the USDA, Cornucopia contracted aerial photography in nine states, from West Texas to New York and Maryland, to investigate some questionable practices by “organic” branded companies.
Their suspicions were confirmed upon discovering “a systemic pattern of corporate agribusiness interests operating industrial-scale confinement livestock facilities providing no legitimate grazing, or even access to the outdoors, as required by federal organic regulations,” reports Corncucopia.org.
“The federal organic regulations make it very clear that all organic livestock must have access to the outdoors and that ruminants, like dairy cows, must have access to pasture,” said Kastel. “The vast majority of these massive, industrial-scale facilities, some managing 10,000-20,000 head of cattle, and upwards of 1 million laying hens, had percent of their animals confined in giant buildings or feedlots.”
Ariel photos of several livestock operations reveal plenty of land for grazing; however, the animals are nowhere to be found, as they’re all being confined indoors.
Big Food tricks and misleads consumers with their faux “organic” products
“Shoppers, who passionately support the ideals and values represented by the organic label, understandably feel betrayed when they see photos of these massive CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) masquerading as organic,” explains Kastel.
Luckily, thanks to diligent research, Cornucopia has created “organic brand scorecards,” allowing consumers to choose from the many organic brands that “truly deliver on the promise of better environmental stewardship, humane animal husbandry, and economic justice for the families who produce organic food.”
“Many of our dairy farmer-members have animals, they truly care for, that have names, not numbers,” said Kastel.
The battle to force the USDA to hold factory farms masquerading as “organic” accountable has had its ups and downs over the years. One of their successes includes the decertification of the Horizon label, and the USDA placing sanctions against Aurora Dairy, a private-label organic milk producer for stores like Walmart, Target and Costco.
Both White Wave and Aurora are still being investigated for improprieties.