THE CORNUCOPIA INSTITUTE, a nonprofit agricultural policy research group in Cornucopia, Wis., will release a report today that ranks organic milk and dairy products based on federal organic standards as well as environmental and humane concerns.
"It is simply an analysis comparing the ethics and management practices of all organic name brand and private label dairy products," said Mark Kastel, a founder of the group, last week. "This is a tool to help consumers shop with firms that represent their values."
Shoppers have come to expect that a container of milk bearing the organic seal meets certain standards: that the milk comes from cows nibbling in organic pastures; that the cows do not come in contact with pesticides and have never been treated with antibiotics or milk-producing hormones; and that if the cows are fed grain, it is organic grain.
But dairy marketing organizations and certifying agencies interpret the rules differently, making some milk more organic than others despite the regulations, which the Department of Agriculture does little to enforce. There are producers selling organic products from cows that live with as many as 6,000 other animals and that seldom see pasture, which fits the definition of a factory farm. There are farms where nonorganic cows are brought in as replacements and where antibiotics and hormones are used.
To get at the heart of the producers' actual practices, the institute sent a survey by certified mail to known marketers of organic dairy products in the United States. The survey consisted of 19 questions about the care and feeding of their cows.
Using the producers' answers, the institute ranked more than 65 brands, with 18 receiving the highest rating, 5 cows and from 1,150 to 1,200 points.
Among those are the milk from Castle Rock Organic Farm in Osseo, Wis.; the yogurt from Seven Stars in Phoenixville, Pa.; and the milk from Evans Farmhouse Creamery in Norwich, N.Y. Seventeen brands received 4 cows and from 965 to 1,140 points. They include Natural by Nature of West Grove, Pa., for milk and cream; Amish Country Farms of Trenton for milk; Organic Valley (Cropp cooperative) of LaFarge, Wis., for all its dairy products; and Stonyfield Farm of Londonderry, N.H., for its yogurt.
Ten received no cows because they did not respond. These include the best-known brands: Aurora Organic Dairy and three owned by Dean Foods (Horizon Organic, Organic Cow of Vermont and Alta Dena), which, the institute estimates, have a 60 percent to 70 percent share of the market.
The information can be found at the institute's Web site, cornucopia.org. Clicking on a company will explain how its score was derived.
The Organic Trade Association said it was distressed by the survey. In a statement, the association said that the survey was nonscientific and that it would "only succeed in sowing seeds of distrust in organic farming and organic products."
But Mr. Kastel said the institute never intended the survey to be scientific. And no matter the level of compliance with regulations, he said, organic is still preferable to conventional.
"If you are worried about things like bovine growth hormone in your milk, organic is still better than conventional milk," he said.