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OCA Call for Boycott of Factory Farm Bogus Organic Dairies Resonating with Some Coops

Come May 15, you won't find Horizon Organic brand's colorful happy cow in the dairy case at the Willy Street Co-op.

Madison's largest grocery cooperative on Williamson Street decided to drop the brand owned by Dean Foods Co. because of long-held concerns over practices at some of the large farms that supply organic milk to the company. The issues were raised by some of the co-op's members, said co-op services manager Lynn Olson.

Willy Street is among about 10 co-ops and retailers across the country that have taken action against Horizon, from posting signs to an outright boycott. Last month, the Organic Consumers Association called for a ban on "bogus" organic milk brands referring to information from the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based farm policy group.

"We'd rather see black and white on green than black and white on brown," Olson said. "We just would rather support farms that are rising above and beyond the national organic standards."

Samara Reich-Rintz and other organic dairy consumers won't be able to buy Horizon Organic products at the Willy Street Co-op after next week. Olson is referring to satellite images of some farms supplying milk under the Horizon brand. She said one in particular is completely brown, indicating lack of grass for grazing.

At the heart of this ongoing debate is the question of what exactly makes milk organic. Since standards were put in place by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2002, there have been questions about whether the certified organic label should apply to milk coming from large, factory-type farms where cows are not pasture-fed, or have very limited access to pasture. The government is now in the process of reviewing these rules.

Horizon Organics would not comment on how much business they've lost as a result of concerns like those expressed by Willy Street and some of its members.

But the company has said it supports changes to organic regulations to require active grazing for at least 120 days during the growing season. It also said there are misconceptions in the marketplace over how many farms supplying Horizon milk are considered large operations. They have two company-owned farms, one in Maryland with 400 cows and one in Idaho with 4,000 cows. These farms supply 20 percent of Horizon's milk while 340 family-owned farms supply 80 percent of the milk.

"Our cows on the Idaho farm graze during the growing season, weather and health of the cows permitting," Jule Taylor, Horizon's general manager of milk supply operations, explained in an e-mail. "The growing season in Idaho is May to September, which varies from frost to frost."

Dean, the nation's largest milk producer, bought Horizon in 2003. It also owns White Wave Foods, which sells soy and organic products.

Mark Kastel, a senior farm policy analyst with the Cornucopia Institute, said practices by companies like Horizon and Aurora Organic Dairy, which supplies milk to private-label sellers, water down what it means to produce organic milk.

The group recently published a report that rates all organic milk on their organic practices. Aurora and Horizon are among those called "ethically challenged." The entire report and rating chart are online at www.cornucopia.org.

"In essence, we're appealing to a higher authority than the USDA, and that's the organic consumer," said Kastel. "We're trying to give them the tools so they can make informed decisions."

Responding to the report, Horizon released a fact sheet highlighting its practices. An online fact sheet on the company can be found at www.horizonorganic.com/aboutus/press/factsheet.html. The company said it did not participate in the Cornucopia study released in April stating, "We are disturbed that the Cornucopia Institute is disseminating inaccurate information that confuses the issues (and) undermines consumer trust in the USDA organic label."

Still, some organic consumers are choosing to ban the brand.

The Boulder Co-op Market, located a bike ride away from Horizon Organic's Colorado headquarters, said Friday it will boycott Horizon. It also urged other organic merchants to boycott the brand.

"It's going to be really interesting to see what their response is," said Amy Wyatt, assistant general manager at the Boulder Co-op. "We think we're doing the right thing."

The Boulder Co-op said it's concerned that Horizon is not living up to its obligations under the National Organic Standard Regulations governing livestock pasture, feed, and confinement.

"Financially, it's a drop in the hat for them. It's the publicity that will be the more hurtful part," Wyatt said of the co-op's boycott. "But we wouldn't be doing this if we didn't feel it was sending a really clear message."

Olson said Willy Street doesn't currently sell a lot of Horizon product, so it won't affect an increasing demand for organic dairy goods at the store. They plan to fill the need by putting more products in the dairy case from companies like Wisconsin Organics.

Chad Pawlak, president of Thorp-based Organic Farm Marketing, which distributes the Wisconsin Organics brand, said Willy Street's decision to pull Horizon product from shelves is good news.

"It allows us the opportunity for more distribution with what we consider the right organic dairy products for consumers that understand that there's not only the regulations to keep in mind but the spirit of the regulation," Pawlak said.

Pawlak expects the USDA review will take several more years. He believes that manufacturers and consumers need to do their part now and apply common sense about organics.

"I've always been an advocate, saying we shouldn't be doing it. But with the advent of the organic factory farms, our distribution has been going up," Pawlak said. "Part of me says revise it and part of me says let 'em keep screwing up because it's helping us."

This isn't the first time Willy Street has pulled a product from its shelves. And as more corporations acquire organic labels, Olson believes it won't be the last time.

Olson said the co-op will reconsider carrying Horizon once the store's concerns have been addressed.

"The way we're dealing with it is we're focusing as we've always done on family farmers who are making ends meet doing it the organic way," Olson said. "If you're doing it right, it doesn't matter if it's a corporation or family farm, family farmers work at corporations."

E-mail: lwelch@madison.com

Published: May 6, 2006
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Copyright 2006 The Capital Times