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Torn over Organic Valley December 18, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Peter Singer doesn’t drink milk, but he does recognize that some milk producers treat their cows more humanely than others. Since reading his evaluation of various organic milk producers in The Way We Eat, I’ve felt pretty good about drinking Organic Valley. Unlike competitors Aurora and Horizon, Organic Valley (OV) requires its farmers to provide cows access to pasture during the growing season, and stipulates that any indoor housing used at other times of the year be more comfortable than the bare concrete commonly used in indoor confinement systems. By no means does this make OV a paragon of virtue – their minimum requirement for time spent grazing pasture is four months of the growing season, so in theory you could have cows that are kept inside for eight months of the year – but the standards are a hell of a lot better than Aurora’s or Horizon’s, which allow cattle to be kept in close confinement in traditional feedlots for their entire lives. (These feedlots are often outdoor pens with dirt floors, which allows Aurora to legally claim that their cattle are outside year-round, conveniently inspiring all sorts of bucolic images of frolicking cows in the minds of their consumers.)

However, OV’s support for Aurora in a consumer class-action lawsuit against the latter has me thinking twice about OV’s true commitment to be a step above the competition. The background to the lawsuit, in brief, is this: apparently the USDA’s organic standards, which require “access to pasture” but specify no minimum amount of time spent on pasture, aren’t weak enough for Aurora. Aurora was allegedly providing no pasture at all (as noted above) as well as mixing cows that had not been raised organically into its organic herds. As a result, it’s being sued for consumer fraud. Now, one would think that OV could gain a little competitive advantage from publicizing this lawsuit, because as far as anyone knows, OV not only adheres to, but exceeds, the USDA’s standards. Sounds like quite a PR opportunity, actually. But instead, OV chose to underwrite a brief to the court in support of Aurora, saying that the lawsuit, if successful, could set a dangerous precedent for future legal action against organic suppliers like itself.

Which makes me think that OV must not be so confident in its own compliance with organic, or better-than-organic, standards. When I sent a note to OV expressing this sentiment, they responded as follows:

“…if successful, it [the class-action suit] possibly means that any organic certificate could be viewed as inadequate and allows anyone to sue farmers, retailers, consumers and other businesses over their interpretation of the “spirit” of organic.  This would truly undermine the validity of the National Organic Standards and any third-party certification process.”

OV does have a point. Opening the door to spurious lawsuits could force OV to dedicate increasing amounts of money and time to courtroom battles, even if their strict adherence to organic standards led them to win every one. So now I’m torn. Organic Valley: corporate hero or apologist?

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1. Winter Solstice Morning Roundup « The Heavy Table - December 21, 2009

[…] will be in a tent, three of Dara’s favorite dishes of 2009, From Animal to Meat asks: “Is Organic Valley a corporate hero or a sellout?“, Bill Roehl previews the Galaxie Diner in Apple Valley, and an interview with anti-Cargill […]

Theresa Marquez - January 26, 2010

Rest assured, Organic Valley has stringent pasture standards, and an auditing team that makes routine checks on top of third party cert. We are proud of our pasture standards. The Aurora lawsuit is much more complicated than it appears and it is no longer simply about Aurora but it has also named a number of retailers. If Aurora loses, it will open up a huge can of worms that we believe will discourage retailers from wanting to carry organic. The USDA program has good staff, money now for enforcement, Kathleen Merrigan, Mile McEvoy. Enforcement is part of the standards that we have worked decadese on. We want the standards to work. Give the USDA the chance to prove the standards can work! For OV, it is not about Aurora. We believe the lawsuit undermines the standards and jeopardizes the entire organic market place. Thanks for listening! PS we are a cooperative owned by farmers – a far cry from a corporation.

2. Erika - October 17, 2012

I am trying to learn more about living vegetarian and I need to know that animals are being treated well. Does organic Valley burn the cows horns? What happens to the baby cows that are born to the dairy cows?

Angelique - October 20, 2012

Excellent questions. You point out some of the humane issues that go under even conscientious consumers’ radar. However, I’m afraid I don’t have answers for you. You’d have to contact OV to find out. Thanks for posting!


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