Monday, September 20, 2010

Organic Valley Coop

A couple weeks ago I posted a long and involved post about milk. The very day it ran, Elizabeth Horton, Director of Public Relations for Organic Valley Coop contacted me to clarify one point in my post. Although Organic Valley's corporate headquarters is located in Wisconsin, their farmers are all across the country. Their milk is bottled regionally in the same regions where it is sold. And the company is cooperatively owned by a network of over 1650 family owned farms.

I didn't mention in my post that my family eats a lot of OV products. I might buy the local milk at my farmer's market, but at my local farmer's market I have not found butter, cottage cheese or sour cream. OV Butter we eat daily. And after starting my dive into Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon, I am as encouraged as ever by my family's buttery embrace. But that post was about milk, not butter.

I was pleased that Elizabeth contacted me. I like to know that people are reading. Also, it was more proof that the industry folks do find and read these food blogs. But I already knew that. But what about everything she said, family owned, local milk? I asked her (I really did) "if your milk is regional, then why don't you post that on your cartons?" She pointed me to their website, where they have just launched a 'Who's Your Farmer' Application. I typed in my address and found three farms within 100 miles of my home in New York City where my milk comes from. Nice.

Now my little disclaimer, I don't have ads on my site on purpose. I don't currently need the quarter a day it would generate so much that I would take up all my side bar space pimping myself out. That's not to say I will never have ads on my site, but I am a little guy, ads are pointless right now. And when I am ready, I'll figure out how to advertise in my own way. So I have not been paid or coerced into any of the following.

The biggest problem with clean food in the US is the lack of accessibility. I eat Organic Valley products because of my desire to eat organic with fewer chemical residues, support of family farmers particularly young family farmers, ethical treatment of animals, etc. There are millions of people that buy food at the grocery store, not the farmer's market. Those people need to have access to clean dairy products too. Certain people do not have access local organic pastured dairies, my parents for one. I am not going to judge you if you don't feel like overhauling your life to start shopping at a farmer's market 20 miles from your house. I would hope that food would become a central theme in your life, but that's really up to you. The message on my blog will always remain inclusive rather than exclusive. But, given that there are so many different kinds of consumers, shouldn't there be a equal opportunity dairy where people can feel like they are doing the right thing for their health and the earth even if they have to buy food from the industrial supply? There should. And actually there is.

Organic Valley began in 1988 when now CEO (or as he likes to be called, C-I-E-I-O, get it?) George Siemon organized a group of organic farmer in Southwestern Wisconsin. They all shared a passion for organic farming and family owned and operated farms, and they believed that by working together they could build demand for organic produce and other foods. The group started with produce and soon added dairy products (it was Wisconsin after all). Today, OV is the number one source of organic milk in the US.

I dug a little deeper into their company's philosophy. I don't believe that it is enough to just be 'organic'. The USDA regulations have, until recently, been centered around animals being free from unnecessary antibiotics and eating feed that is free of pesticides. I have always gone one step further and looked for meat and dairy that are pastured. That means they eat grass, but you already knew that. For me that's out of respect for the animal. Cows are ruminants and have evolved to eat (and more importantly digest) grass. When we give cows corn feed they have trouble digesting it (particularly to young cows whose digestive systems have not fully matured). Their bowels become upset and they are more prone to infection. Corn also has the effect of making the cows gain weight faster than if they were pastured. That way a farmer can get a calf up to slaughtering size in about 12-18 months instead of two-three years for a grass fed animal. Lastly, and this is the hardest one to change, Americans have grown to love the taste of corn-fed beef. Corn-fed meat is sweeter, more tender and more fatty. Grass-fed beef is delicious and VERY flavorful, but it could be considered gamier. For ethical reasons I try to stick to grass-fed. And my family is used to it now, so we are happy. But the biggest reason why we prefer grass fed meats is because they are more healthful. Meat and milk that comes from grass fed animals are higher in Omega 3's (as well as having the correct Omega 3 to Omega 6 ratio), has a higher concentration of trace minerals and is leaner. Overall, it should be instinctual, grass fed animals are healthier so their meat and milk are healthier.

But back to milk. I checked out the Organic Valley Website in regards to pasturing. Because that was one of my big questions. OV believes in pasturing the animals during the grass growing months. In a bold move of transparency they provided a link to new USDA regulations requiring pasturing for at least 120 days every year for a product to be called organic. It is a site I know well because I have hit it several times in my own research. These new USDA regulations were posted February 2010, so they are relatively new. And that means I should also correct what I said about Horizon in my milk post. They are also now required to pasture their animals to be classified as organic.

But, I said to myself, 120 days? That's only 4 months out of the year. What do the cows eat for the other 8 months? I asked Elizabeth. And she put me in contact with one of their Farm Coordinators. Unfortunately I have been unable to connect with him, unless he wants a phone call at 8pm eastern time! I have asked for the gentleman's email address so that I can contact him on my personal time. I'll let you know what response I get.

Lastly, some words about pasteurization. Without getting into an ugly debate, I have been doing some reading about pasteurization and am more ready to 'issue a personal statement' as to where I stand in the raw milk debate. I maintain my stance from my earlier post that I have no doubt that raw milk holds some special benefits, but that you do open yourself up to bacterial risk when you drink it. I firmly believe that raw milk should be available for sale for the people that want to drink it, but I am more likely to support farm sales or cooperative buying clubs as I don't believe that the vast majority of people would do the research that the issue requires. I did ask Elizabeth about UHT or Ultra High Temperature Pasteurization. She pointed me to the web page on the OV site that deals with Pasteurization. It is not hidden, it is listed under the main products tab, drill into 'milk' on the left hand side bar and you will see a tab for pasteurization information. It is the fourth tab from the left. Regular pasteurization heats the milk to 165 degrees for 15 seconds. This gives milk a printed shelf life of 16-21 days. UHT raises the temperature of the milk to 280 degrees for only two seconds. This kills EVERYTHING, bacteria, all enzymes and reduces some vitamin and mineral content. The shelf life of UHT milk is 70 days from the date of packaging. Americans hate that food goes bad, so UHT milk is gaining in popularity. The main issue in the raw milk debate is that many people believe that the enzymes in the milk are what allow us to digest the milk at all. The evidence is clear, pasteurization does not significantly alter vitamin content, but if your body can't absorb the vitamins then what's the point. Sally Fallon in Nourishing Traditions goes as far as to say don't drink ANY pasteurized milk products. But no one that I can find has done a deep dive on how the body digests pasteurized milk. I, for one, can't label pasteurized milk as an unhealthy food. I prefer low temperature pasteurization for sure. My salesperson at Milk Thistle recently told me that their milk still had some enzymes intact because of the low temperature pasteurization. That is where I am most comfortable. OV sells both traditional pasteurization milk and UHT milk. Their cartons are clearly stated, and they have educated their consumers about how to tell their cartons apart. But sadly I checked two different grocery stores in New York that offer a large organic selection, and everything from milk to cream to individual chocolate milks were UHT. I did find, on a very bright note, RAW milk cheddar cheese from OV at Fairway. I have over a pound of raw milk cheese in my fridge right now from Hawthorne Valley. But when we are done I will have to try some from OV. This is a much safer and legal way to get some of the health benefits of raw milk, because the aging of the cheese kills most of the bad buggies. And, you can probably find it near you without too much google searching.

I have to thank Elizabeth for reaching out to me. I have gotten emails from other corporations telling me about donations they are making to this children's food fund or that school lunch program. This was the first time a company contacted me to say 'Hey, look at the way we do business. I invite you to investigate all aspects of our products and practices.' I find that very refreshing. I haven't been paid to say any of this stuff. But also friends, don't expect my blog to be anti capitalist anytime soon either. I believe in the power that business can have when it is managed ethically. I believe every person in this country has a right to have access to clean food. If there is someone out there doing this on a large scale, why the heck wouldn't I work to spread the word?

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