Just How Organic is Your Organic Beef? The TFT Reader Investigation Continues…
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About TFT Reader Investigations: First we asked you to vote on the topic you wanted to investigate together with our reporter. It was a new experiment in journalism, which caught the attention of the Columbia Journalism Review. Now the voting is over and we have a winner: generic and private label foods. To track our progress, pleas check out the earlier installments of the investigation series. And please sign up on The Faster Times e-mail list (see sign-up box to the right) to make sure that you receive updates on the investigation as it progresses.
Last week we started looking into where private-label organic beef comes from after a reader turned us on to a source in the beef industry. The source told us that some large private-label organic dairies might be selling meat from older dairy cows as organic beef. We’re continuing to follow that story, and this week spoke with Mark Kastel at the Cornucopia Institute, an organic food watchdog group.
Cornucopia was the organization that first drew press and regulatory attention to the practices of Aurora Organic Dairy, one of the largest suppliers of private-label organic dairy milk, which it found to be in violation of organic standards. The organization has been focused on the organic milk industry for the last few years, but Kastel says they are now gearing up to dig into the organic beef and poultry markets, where he says there is “a lot of abuse, especially in private-label.”
Kastel alerted us to a few changes that are currently being proposed to the National Organic Program and would affect all organic beef, private-label or otherwise. “Right now, a lot of the ranches, especially the big ones, send their cows to a traditional feedlot to be ‘finished,’ which basically means cramming corn down the cows’ throats for the last 150 days, only in this case it’s organic corn,” Kastel says. “Our position is that that’s not organic. If the National Organic Program decides to continue to allow it, we think there should be different labels so that consumers can know how that meat was produced.”
We’ll keep you posted on any changes on that front. In the meantime, Kastel helped clarify for us why selling meat from old dairy cows might be illegal, in addition to being somewhat gross and misleading for consumers who believe they’re paying a premium for higher-quality meat when they’re buying organic.
“To be an organic beef cow, the cow has to be managed organically from the time it’s in its last trimester, before it has even been born,” Kastel explained. “For organic beef, that’s it, period. On a beef ranch that has converted to organic, if it has some conventional cows, they need to be separated out from the herd and tagged so that they’re never slaughtered as organic.”
Organic dairies have far more lax standards. “With a dairy ranch, it’s different—you’ve got one chance to convert,” Kastel says. “Let’s say I milk 50 cows and my ranch isn’t organic, but I’m a good farmer and I manage my ranch fairly sustainably. If I want to convert to organic, it takes three years of not using any chemicals on my ranch, and then in the last year I need to use no drugs and only chemical-free food on my cows. Then a wand is waved and my farm is now organic.”
However, Kastel pointed out, those converted cows cannot legally be slaughtered as organic beef. “Ten years down the road, when those cows have calves and then those calves have calves of their own, THAT meat can be sold as organic if that baby was always managed as organic, even in the womb,” he explained.
Even in the legal instances, however, dairy cow meat would never be sold as anything but ground beef, according to Kastel. “These are typically older cows, they’re not the young fresh cows that you’re going to sell steaks off of.”
Kastel doesn’t know which organic dairies might be selling organic beef, but he said if we can tell him the names of the dairies, then he can tell us whether they’re doing it legally or not. “I know where most of them get their cows, so it will be pretty easy to tell which ones are doing it legally,” he said. “Most of the giant organic dairies—the Dean Foods [producers of Horizon Organic Milk] and the Aurora Organics, for example—most of them brought in one-year-old conventional cows, and at two years old, they were considered organic dairy cows. None of those could be sold as organic beef.”
We’ve got a couple of leads on figuring out which dairies might be doing this, but we need your help. Next time you’re in a Wal-Mart, Trader Joe’s, Safeway, Costco, or Whole Foods, ask them who supplies their store-brand organic ground beef. If you can get an answer, let us know and we can track it to the source.
And we’re still continuing to research other aspects of the private-lable food business as well. Don’t forget to check out the earlier installments of the investigation series, as well as some of our background resources (listed below), and please comment here or email firstname.lastname@example.org if you’ve got information to share or a lead you think we should follow.
To help get you started, following are links to a few handy resources:
Trader Joe’s contact page: This company’s main slogan is that it gives its customers what they want; if you’re a customer, ask to know more about where TJ’s private-label foods come from.
Cornucopia Institute: This is an organic foods watchdog group that has called out many of the private-label dairies for poor practices. Tons of their reports and findings are available online.
Wal-Mart – There’s a wealth of information out there about Wal-Mart’s love of store-brand items, including a 2006 BrandWeek study conducted during the year when private-label really started to take off in the U.S.; a greatFortune article written last year when the store relaunched its “Great Value” brand; and an Advertising Age article in which Wal-Mart’s CMO defends the store’s shift to more private-label brands.
Private Label Magazine – The private-label industry is big enough to have its own magazine, which profiles a variety of retailers and their store brands.
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