Thursday, April 13, 2006

Organic Milk - Private Labels' Anonymous Suppliers

About midway through the Cornucopia Institute's Organic Dairy Scorecard you'll see "private-label" or store-brand dairy products ranked.1

Cornucopia Institute's Organic Dairy Scorecard

A private label, such as Harris Teeter, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods 365 Organic, etc., by definition, refrains from divulging its sources. Granted, those sources don't remain static, allowing private-label companies to maintain a competitive edge. But anonymity places store brands in a precarious position. They want to assure consumers that their dairy products meet organic standards, yet they're apparently unwilling2 to tell consumers where their dairy products are purchased.

I don't know about you, but I get antsy when I hear in effect, "Just trust us."

It's not as if they can't divulge this information:
"If these companies want to truly express a commitment to organics, and communicate this tangibly to their customer base, we would encourage them to specify on their label what dairy farmers and cooperatives they are "partnering with."
- Cornucopia Institute - Private Label
Regrettably, they depend on the controversial USDA Organic Label to communicate a products' organic worthiness. Why is that regrettable?:
"Mostly, the [USDA] has resisted or ignored the pleas for enforcement of federal organic rules, even sitting on recommendations from their own citizens advisory committee, the National Organic Standards Board."
- Cornucopia Institute - Organic Dairy Report (pdf)
Of course, that begs the question (from the Cornucopia's Report):
"Why hasn’t the USDA been strictly enforcing the regulations that are on the books? Curious readers can find documentary evidence of the incestuous relationship between the USDA, corporate lobbyists, and large political contributions in two reports:

USDA Inc.: How Agribusiness Has Hijacked Regulatory Policy at the US Department of Agriculture

A Matter of Trust: How the Revolving Door Undermines Public Confidence in Government—And What to Do About It
I guess I'll stick to name-brands for now:
"The bottom line for private-label organic products, whether a dairy item or any other commodity, is "buyer beware." We encourage consumers to be vigilant and contact stores to confirm who is supplying their private-label milk or to just pay an extra quarter or two for name-brand milk from farmers and brands that are willing to be open with them and who share their values."
- Cornucopia Institute - Private Label
One more point - Take note that all of the dairy products discussed here and in Cornucopia's Scorecard are "organic", and organic milk accounts for only about 1% of the milk market. Most milk out there is non-organic, or conventional, and is required to hurdle a much lower standards bar.

1 Admiration and thanks goes out to reader TK who exercised her consumer power by contacting a private label and sharing her experience with me.

2 No private label that was contacted by the Cornucopia Institute - via certified letter - agreed to participate in their comparative analysis. That's a 0% response rate, compared to an 81% response rate for name-brands.

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