Wisconsin group exposes factory-farms and mislabeled ‘organic’ foods

The Wisconsin Gazette

A Wisconsin-based farm policy and research group is pursuing formal complaints against 14 industrial livestock operations that are producing dairy, eggs and meat being wrongfully marketed as “organic.”

The group, the Cornucopia Institute, said it took action after years of inaction by the USDA and contracted for aerial photography over factory farms in nine states over eight months.

The group, in its report released on Dec. 11, said it documented “a systemic pattern of corporate agribusiness interests operating industrial-scale confinement livestock facilities providing no legitimate grazing, or even access to the outdoors, as required by federal organic regulations.”

Representatives of several companies took issue with Cornucopia’s claims, saying the report contained inaccuracies and false accusations.

Mark A. Kastel, a senior farm policy analyst with the group, said, “The federal organic regulations make it very clear that all organic livestock must have access to the outdoors and that ruminants, like dairy cows, must have access to pasture. The vast majority of these massive, industrial-scale facilities, some managing 10,000-20,000 head of cattle, and upwards of 1 million laying hens, had 100 percent of their animals confined in giant buildings or feedlots.”

Kastel and Cornucopia emphasized that family-scale farmers who helped grow the organic movement in the 1980s did so, in part, because agribusiness consolidation and control of the food supply was squeezing profit margins and forcing farmers off the land.

Consumers made organics a rapidly growing market sector by supporting farmers and processors willing to produce food to a different standard in terms of environmental stewardship, humane animal husbandry and economic fairness for farmers.

“Shoppers, who passionately support the ideals and values represented by the organic label, understandably feel betrayed when they see photos of these massive concentrated animal feeding operations masquerading as organic,” Kastel said.

Cornucopia has created organic brand scorecards for consumers.

“Many of our dairy farmer-members have animals they truly care for, that have names, not numbers,” Kastel said.

Cornucopia filed its first legal complaints against industrial operations in 2004 and, as a result, the largest dairy supplying the Horizon/Whitewave label was decertified and the USDA placed sanctions against Aurora Dairy, which produces private-label organic milk for Walmart, Costco, Target and other retailers.

Cornucopia remains concerned with other producers and suppliers.

“The inaction by the USDA places thousands of ethical family-scale farmers, who are competing with a couple of dozen giant dairies, at a competitive disadvantage,” said Kevin Engelbert, a New York-based dairyman, milking 140 cows who, along with his family, was the first certified organic dairy producer in the United States.

He added, “Allowing … illegal dairies to continue to operate is a travesty and significantly undercuts the supply-demand dynamic that should be rewarding farmers in the marketplace and providing a decent living for our families.”

In the chicken industry, the USDA has allowed corporate agribusiness to confine as many as 100,000 laying hens in a building, sometimes exceeding a million birds on a “farm,” and substituting a tiny screened porch for true access to the outdoors.

The organics loophole, “porched-poultry,” was first allowed in 2002 in a case involving The Country Hen, a Massachusetts egg producer, to confine tens of thousands of birds in a barn with an attached porch that might, at best, hold 5 percent of the birds in the main building.