Ronnie: Well, the good news is, there is such a huge demand for organic products across the United States and North America that there is a serious shortage of supply. One of the types of products that are in serious short supply is organic milk. This is already more than a $1 billion a year industry in the United States out of the $15 billion in organic food sales last year.
The problem is that our government -- specifically the U. S. Department of Agriculture -- takes about $90 billion of our tax money every year and they give subsidies to all of these factory farms to go organic, but they give no subsidies to help family-scale dairies make the transition to organic. We literally do not have enough family farmers with the wherewithal to achieve organic certification and make the product.
At the same time, we have these giant retail giants like Wal-Mart who have noticed that the public wants organic food and they are willing to pay a premium price for it, so organic and the other retail chain stores have moved with a vengeance to dominate the organic market. Wal-Mart is now the No.1 seller of organic milk in the country. The problem is that the milk they are selling -- Horizon Organic -- is not really organic. It is coming from the factory-style dairy farms where the animals are kept in intensive confinement and have been imported from conventional farms as calves. They simply label it organic, and the USDA lets them get away with it.
Mike: Let us get into more detail on that, because I want people to understand how they do an end run around this organic label. First, do you agree that there is some degree of success in the fact that consumer demand for organic products is now so strong? Is that not a success by itself?
Ronnie: It is a tremendous success. It is attributed to the fact that a lot of us spent the last 30 years building up an alternative food and farming system in the United States. This alternative system has proved to be much better than industrial agriculture, and so now the latest polls show 75 percent of Americans say they are shopping for healthier food. If you look at the statistics, about 12 cents of every grocery store dollar are going for foods that are labeled as either natural or organic.
Mike: Well, that is a substantial sum. That is growing at what, about 20 percent a year or something?
Ronnie: Growing at 20 percent a year, whereas conventional food sales tend to grow about 2 percent a year. This 20 percent a year growth has been steady ever since 1991. It appears that it will continue through the end of this decade, so by then most food sold in grocery stores will have a label that says natural or organic.
The question is: If we let these gigantic corporations like Horizon and Organic and Wal-Mart take over the industry, will it really be organic?
Mike: Let's talk about the definition of organic, then. What should organic really mean in terms of, not only the treatment of the cows, but also what chemicals are not in the milk, for example? What is the real definition?
Ronnie: There are organic farmers all over the world -- in about 100 countries -- who are certified organic nowadays. Traditionally organic has always meant that you raise crops without chemical pesticides or chemical fertilizers, and that you raise animals without drugging them up with hormones or antibiotics. You cannot take sewage sludge and put it on farmlands. You cannot feed animals things like blood, slaughterhouse waste, manure and municipal garbage, and you cannot use untested and hazardous technologies like genetic engineering or fruit irradiation. The animals have to be raised on pasture -- which is their natural behavior -- where every day of the growing season, weather permitting, they are out on pasture eating grass and foraging as they have evolved to do.
What has happened recently is that Wal-Mart was buying their organic milk from genuine organic dairy farmers that pastured their animals, and then they turned around to that company -- Organic Valley -- and they said, "Hey, we want a lower price," just as Wal-Mart always does. Organic Valley said no, so Wal-Mart then turned to Dean Foods, the largest dairy conglomerate in the world -- which had bought out Horizon Organic -- and said, "Would you sell to us?" To which Horizon said, "We will sell you the cheapest organic milk you have ever seen."
Horizon conveniently took advantage of the fact that Federal Organic Standards say the cows must have access to pasture, and they said, "Oh well, I guess theoretical access to pasture is good enough. We are going to chain up our cows and milk them three times a day, and they will never get out pasturing unless there is a news organization coming to the farm that day. We will still call it organic." They have been doing this for four years, and there have been complaints from the Organic Consumers Association and organic farmers all over the country.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has completely ignored these complaints for four years. However, now this controversy has reached such a state with the mass media covering it and retail stores across the country starting to drop Horizon and Aurora Organic, that the USDA is finally making noises that they will clear up this situation and promulgate federal regulations that actually require the animals to be pastured.
They will make sure that the animals were not imported from some conventional dairy farm where they were weaned on blood; fed antibiotics, slaughterhouse waste, and chicken manure; and then called organic. The animals must be raised from birth as organic, and they must be pastured every day during the growing season -- a minimum of 120 days a year. This is what organic has always meant in terms of raising cows, and it is what it should mean now.
Mike: Now, these are pretty serious accusations of Horizon Milk or Dean Foods' behavior. How are you able to support this? Do you have an insider taking pictures, or how did you become aware of this behavior on their part?
Ronnie: It was called to our attention by a watchdog organization called The Cornucopia Institute, which actually visited some of these factory-style dairy farms that Horizon and Aurora call organic. They witnessed firsthand things like a farm where there are 4,000 animals, but only a few hundred acres of pasture. You cannot possibly pasture animals on that little pasture, especially when they are in semi-arid parts of Idaho, Colorado and West Texas.
Then beyond that, workers on these farms started coming forth as whistleblowers. There was a story in the Chicago Tribune about one of these whistleblowers who pointed out that these cows are not put out to pasture. The only time they are put out to pasture is when there is a media organization or an important person coming out.
Yes, it is firsthand information. It is a look at the terrain that these factory-style dairy feedlots are set on. Look at the size of their pasture, and then the fact that there was a national survey of organic dairy farms that came out March 22 -- which the unethical dairies did not respond to or they got really low ranks --whereas, the ethical producers were happy to be transparent about their practices.
The good news is, almost all the organic farmers in the country are actually practicing real organic standards. The bad news is that the market leader, Horizon Organic, and their junior partner, Aurora Organic, are flagrantly violating organic standards to the point where we, the Organic Consumers Association, had to call for a boycott. We have never called for a boycott against an organic product before. This was going too far, so starting in early April, we called on consumers across the country to start boycotting the products of Horizon Organic and Aurora Organic, and to boycott the brand names that the leading retailers are selling from Horizon and Aurora at Wal-Mart, Costco, Safeway, Giant, Publix, and Wild Oats.
Mike: Well, this seems like a clear case in which big business is now seeing dollar signs whenever the word "organic" appears, so they are doing the minimum necessary or even just blatantly violating the rules in order to put that word on their products, regardless of the spirit of the law or the original intent of organics. Is this just corporate greed?
Ronnie: This is, and the sad thing is, how easy it would be to help 5,000 or 10,000 conventional family farmers make the transition in their dairies to organic. It would not be that hard. It would not cost that much money, and this way we could still have organic standards that were real, animals treated humanely and not damage the environment.
Of course, we have not even mentioned that one of the reasons you want organic animals to be outdoors and pastured is because the quality of the meat and milk is much higher if the animals are raised naturally on grass. The other organic requirements mean that the end product is going to be healthier as well. They are not going to have antibiotic residues or genetically engineered hormones. They are not going to be spreading mad cow disease and so on. We, right now in the United States, have an excess of milk being produced by family-scale dairy farmers who are not yet organic. It would be very simple to help those who want to make the transition do so if we were to force the government to give us a fair share of our subsidies to help these farmers do that.
Mike: Now, you mentioned that pasture-fed cows are healthier cows. This gets back to something you mentioned earlier that needs to be emphasized, because most people simply do not believe this is happening. Conventional cows, in fact, are being fed chicken litter and other animals.
Ronnie: Yes, they take it from birth. Cows were traditionally weaned on their mother's milk, but industrial agriculture figured out that it's pretty expensive to wean the calves on milk, so they decided to wean them on blood. That is common practice nowadays on a conventional dairy farm. Then, you feed them primarily grains that are genetically engineered, but mixed in with those grains are things that make the animals grow faster and put on weight like slaughterhouse waste; basically ground up pigs, chickens, dogs, cats and everything else are fed to them.
They found out all these factory poultry farms around the country were producing billions of pounds of manure that pollute the environment. What can we do with all this manure? Presto, they feed it back to cows. They sweep up the manure, the feathers and the dropped bits of cattle that are fed to chickens in their feed. They sweep that all up, turn around, and feed it back to cows.
Most people in the United States are shocked when they hear that 80 percent of the drugs and antibiotics made in this country are not fed to humans to cure them of some illness, but fed to animals in their feed every day to make them grow faster. Scientists do not totally understand why, but they do know that if you cram thousands of animals together in unsanitary or unhygienic -- not to mention inhumane -- conditions, they all get sick and die.
The only way to keep them alive is to constantly feed them antibiotics. Of course, what that means is you turn around and drink a glass of dairy milk from a conventional farm, and you are getting residues of antibiotics in every drink. They also figured out, "We could use our genetically engineered hormone to shoot up these cows with this hormone produced by Monsanto, even though it is banned in just about every industrialized country in the world except for the United States." If you shoot up dairy cows with this hormone, you can force them to give more milk, and you can keep milking them even past their lactation period. You can actually milk a cow not for a year, but for up to a thousand days. Of course, the cow will drop dead after that, but they do not care.
For all these reasons, there is a huge movement on the part of American consumers and especially concerned parents and concerned grandparents -- if they drink milk and if their kids and grandparents drink -- to switch to organic.
Mike: Is it fair to say, Ronnie, that the organic-labeled Horizon Milk on the shelves in Wal-Mart right now comes, at least in part, from cows that were at one point in their lives fed blood, manure, chicken litter and some other things you mentioned? Is that accurate?
Ronnie: Yes, half of Horizon Organic's milk today comes from these factory dairy feedlots. One hundred percent of Aurora Organic's milk comes from these factory dairy feedlots. It is cheaper to not buy organic calves that have been raised from birth on an organic farm, but to buy conventional calves that have been raised as cheaply as possible on a conventional farm. The routine practice today on a conventional farm is feeding the animals blood plasma as a milk replacer. You feed them genetically engineered grains, slaughterhouse waste, and chicken manure. That is industry standard. Why? You can make more money doing it that way.
Mike: Okay, so for those reading this, take a closer look at that bowl of cereal next time. If you are pouring cow's milk in there, you might want to buy genuine organic and not the cheap stuff.
Ronnie: Yes, and Mike here is another point that you might think about: for those people who do not drink dairy milk, but who buy organic soy milk, the leading organic soy milk brand in the United States is Silk. Many consumers have no idea that Silk -- just like Horizon Organic Milk -- was bought out by this giant conglomerate, Dean Foods.
Silk used to buy their organic soybeans from U.S. and Canadian organic soybean farmers, and they paid them a decent price -- $16 to $21 a bushel -- for these organic soybeans. Well, now that Dean Foods has bought out Silk, they are starting to import cheap, so-called organic soybeans from China, where the workers are treated like slaves and organic standards are dubious. Or, they are importing soybeans from Brazil where there is a huge uproar over the fact that people are whacking down the Amazon -- the lungs of the planet -- in order to plant export crops, specifically soybeans, to export.
Even if we think this does not affect us, because we do not eat meat or we do not eat dairy, we have to see the effect of these big corporations like Dean Foods coming into organic. Wal-Mart wants to sell you stuff that is cheaper than their competitors, and the only way they can do that is to outsource it from overseas -- places like China and Brazil -- where worker rights and environmental standards are routinely violated, or else lower standards in the United States and allow industrial-style production to call itself organic.
Mike: Now, this is obviously a very important story for consumers to follow. How can they continue to get updates from you on this story?
Ronnie: Every day on our news site, www.OrganicConsumers.org you will find updates. We have a whole section of our website called "Safeguard Organic Standards," where you can take action. Right at the top of our home page is an opportunity for you to send a message to what we are calling the "Shameless Seven." These are the large corporations trying to defraud consumers and put ethical organic farmers out of business by labeling factory farm production -- and slave labor production, in the case of China -- as organic.
Mike: I want to thank you, Ronnie, for taking the time to give us all of this shocking information today.
Ronnie: Thank you.