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Shopping for an organic meal? Take these cheat sheets with you

Shopping for an organic meal? Take these cheat sheets with you
REUTERS/Nicky Loh

The organic label implies something less industrial than the brands we associate with multinational companies like General Mills or Kraft -- even with organic products stacked on the shelves of superstore giants like Wal-Mart and Target.

Not so. These days major industrial players dominate organic food production. How else could the superstore demands be satisfied? Behind most familiar organic brands is much more familiar multinational food processor. Cascadian Farm and Muir Glen are owned by General Mills. Odwalla is a Coca-Cola brand. Back to Nature is a Kraft brand.

Michigan State professor Phil Howard maintains a “Who owns organic?” chart. Here it is, using data from June 2009:

OrganicIndustryStructure1000.jpg

Click to enlarge the Organic Industry Structure

(Download the full-size chart as a PDF)

Taking a close look at organic dairy
Researchers at The Cornucopia institute in Cornucopia, Wis., have been diligently tracking the industrialization of organics for years. One major project is their Organic Dairy Scorecard. Continually updated, the scorecard shows “which brands and dairy products found in your region are produced using the best organic farming practices and ethics.”

Those best practices, according to the Cornucopia Institute, include:

Ownership structure: Categories range from “farms owned and operated by a resident farm family” to “investor owned corporation with a questionable track record.”

Milk supply: Cornucopia’s ideal is the farmstead dairy that maybe buys additional milk from neighbors. At the bottom of the list are the dairies that have no direct control over suppliers and purchase from “confinement dairies” where cows are squeezed together by the thousands.

Antibiotic use on young cattle: Top scores go to farms where all antibiotic use is prohibited. They also rank based on hormone usage.

(Download the full list of scorecard criteria as a PDF)

Which Minnesota dairies make on the list and how did they score?

Here are the top scoring dairies in Minnesota:

 

Five Cow Rating

Cedar Summit Dairy, New Prague (milk, yogurt, ice cream)

PastureLand, Dodge Center (seasonal production of cheese and butter)

 

Four Cow Rating

Old Home, St. Paul (milk)

Hope Creamery, Hope (butter)

Helios, Sauk Centre (kefir)

Want to dig deeper? Have a look at Cornucopia’s Organic Dairy Scorecard and let me know what jumps out at you. Do you agree with Cornucopia’s standards? What lengths did you go to for an organic Thanksgiving?

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Comments (8)

1) Trader Joes "All Natural" pre-brined turkey. Label said no drugs, not tightly confined (but apparently not free-range) and fed organic grains (listed). First try based on their mail flyer, in past Byerly's or Jerry's similar for 2x price. Tasted great (of course, my seasoning.)
2) Trader Joe's free-range chicken broth in all recipes (wild-rice soup, dressing, etc). I was already in the store, even lower $ than Cub for same I noticed later.
3) half-dozen fresh spices and some veggies were labeled organic - off shelf at Cub.
4) I have to buy soy milk and rice milk from Jerrys (that's "milk"?)
5) Kemps 2% Select is as as close as we get on "real milk"

Hey we're not fanatics - just if convenient.
Of course, also always placating one guest with an advanced degree in Wholistic Medicine and another eats 2 legged meat, not four legged (I still don't understand that.)

Minnesota lags. French Meadow bakery at the MSP airport could not sell me a loaf of wnole grain bread. (They had a half and half.) What I'm wondering, though, is about the origins of milling in Minneapolis. Did the city contribute to the sales of white flour? That took fifty years to correct?

Wow. Almost too much information to digest here, but thank you a lot!

I have often wondered when purchasing products labeled "organic" who the source, or manufacturer, is and what definition of organic is being used. Since most of the products I have assumed are organic are actually produced by multinational companies with little incentive to use the more expensive organic growing and manufacturing methods, the question for me now is, just how much more nutritious is Naked Juice (owned by Pepsi), Muir Glen (General Mills), or even locally owned Frenchmeadow Bakery (Cargil)than similar nonorganic products by these companies, and are they worth the extra cost to my pocketbook?

Locally grown or produced remains the best choice. A good example is Cedar Summit Dairy, our top choice for milk. You can taste the difference and will not want to use traditional dairy products again.

You mention Cedar Summit's outstanding Five Cow rating and list them as producing milk, yogurt, and ice cream. I would add that they also supply the milk to Alemar Cheese Company that the latter uses to make delicious Bent River cheese.

To Joel and others who may appreciate clarification on this point,

I understood the point of the article to be that large corporations find it convenient to hide their dominance of the organic food market, and that different farms follow different practices. But the size of the parent company growing the food doesn't tell you anything about the nutritional value of what you're eating.

The term "organic" is regulated by the Department of Agriculture. Many "organic" products may be produced by subsidiaries of large corporations, but if they have the label, they are legally required to follow the specified guidelines.

"Natural" is regulated ONLY for meat and poultry, and even then the regulation is pretty minimal: it simply means that no artificial ingredients or color have been added, and the processing is "minimal". "Natural" says nothing about how the livestock were raised or fed.

"Organic" and "natural" do NOT mean "nutritious". There simply isn't much data (one way or the other) to make a broad nutritional comparison of organic and conventionally grown produce, livestock, etc. anyway. Milk from grass-fed cows will certainly taste different than milk from corn-fed cows, and organic produce will have less pesticide residue. I believe there are some studies that show (for example) that some pesticides and other industrial agricultural products do linger on food and in the human body, but I am not aware of any major studies showing a significant health benefit to consuming organic food over conventional food.

Anyone have more information?

Mark I think you may not have considered Cornicopia's criteria entirely. They don't talk about nutrition, that I can see, they look at the nature of the farm and how the livestock is treated. I buy locally grown, ogranic, free-range whatever, from my local Co-OP. My intention is to support local producers, Family run farms and the Co-Op because I think its a good thing to do. We need to keep as much of our money here in the community as we can.
If it might be healthier, that's a bonus.
Cedar Summit milk in the glass bottle certainly does taste different, much better in my opinion. But taste isn't really the reasoning behind grass fed. What I have gotten from the folks I've talked with at the farmers market and other direct marketing farmers is that cows are grazers, they are "designed" to eat grass and thus healtier if that's what they do. Corn is used to put fat into meat and I suppose increase milk proction, not to make the cow healthier.
I

Mark, please see recent study by researchers form Washington State University comparing organic vs std strawberries: http://www.dailytech.com/Study+Certified+Organic+Strawberries+Have+More+...

The results of this study support the claim that organic food, strawberries, are more nutritious, taste better, have longer shelf life, and result in healthier soil.

Henk,

I don't think I disagree with you, so let me explain what I wrote. I believe there are multiple persuasive reasons for buying organic locally grown food. I strongly support farming practices that care for both farm animals and the environment ethically. However, I am not convinced that organically grown food is proven to be nutritionally superior to conventionally grown food. Advocates should be careful not to get too far ahead of the scientific research, for the risk of alienating consumers when contradictory studies are published. Please, continue supporting responsible farming! Just don't let nutrition be your main reason.

Joel,

Thanks for the link. I looked over the study by Reganold et al, and it is interesting. There are several results from that study, most of which deal with issues other than nutrition (like soil chemistry and shelf life). For nutrition, the results are significant but mixed: the organic strawberries they examined had more anti-oxidant activity, particularly greater concentrations of ascorbic acid (vitamin C), but also had less phosphorous and potassium. Otherwise, they were nutritionally similar. The article does suggest that there are significant agricultural benefits to growing strawberries by organic practices. However, to me, the results do not present much evidence for preferring organic over conventional strawberries on nutritional grounds alone, so I'll stand by my original point.

Having said all that, someone who is concerned about consuming pesticides should avoid conventional strawberries. Unlike thick-skinned apples or oranges, pesticides sprayed on strawberries are readily absorbed by the fruit, and cannot be easily washed off. (Then again, the organic strawberries in the study were treated with sulfur sprays, so sometimes you just have to do research beyond the labels, like The Cornucopia Institute is doing.)