September 17, 2006

Wal-Mart Milk: Organic Enough For Ya? Then What Is?


They should call it the New York Timely. There's a very interesting article about Wal-Mart's big push to sell organic products, including milk, and the ensuing debate over just how "organic" food is when it's produced on a near-industrial scale.

Though Wal-Mart takes much of the spotlight, the real focus of the article is the supplier, Aurora Organic Farms, which is gigantic as far as organic farms go. Did you know they also supply store brand milk to Safeway, Costco, Target and Wild Oats? Does that trip up any of you Anywhere-But-Wal-Mart shoppers? [FWIW, Whole Foods called Aurora's product and process "unacceptable."]

As USDA Organic certification requires, there are no hormones or antibiotics involved, but there is also far less grass pasture feeding and way more grain feed which, critics point out, defeats much of the point of organic methods. The nutrients are lower, and the cows aren't as healthy, they say.

Frankly, since opening the organic Pandora's milk box last week, and then having this spinach thing hit in the middle of it, all the issues of the quality of food going into the kid and the conditions under which it was produced are just cascading.

The milk options alone run from industrial homogenized from the national chain drugstore to buying a cow share in Virginia and going to meet the milkman once a week to having fresh-frozen raw milk fedexed from California, even.

The Veggie Chips the kid loves? Turns out they're from Taiwan, they're not organic, just "natural," and they're a private label brand of United Natural Foods, a $2 bn/yr distributor of organic & health food. You could literally spend all your time sourcing and vetting every type of food you buy. And even with all the effort, I'm sure I'll end up on the turnpike sometime, letting the kid snarf down a bag of Chips Ahoy.

A Milk War Over More Than Price [nyt]
Previously: we switched to organic milk. Also, we and everyone throws out their spinach.


Speaking of Whole Foods, I was in there yesterday and saw that they are selling non-organic garlic grown in China, of all places. You know, because garlic is so hard to grow in this country. Or maybe it's because the undocumented migrant labor force that brings in the harvests in California is being run out of the country. Anyway, if you want to see unacceptable processes, visit an industrial farm in China. If we're lucky they skim the chemical slick off the river water before they irrigate the fields. Whole Foods is pretty much Super Wal Mart with 50% higher prices.

We haven't gone organic yet and I'm not sure if we will, but all the things they put in food these days is really scaring the bejeezus out of my wife and me. My wife's best friend is studying to be a physician's assistant and is learning about nutrition at the moment. She tried to tell me substances such as BGH and the antibiotics are digested as proteins and have no effects on the body. I don't care what "experts" say, but I doubt BGH and the such have no effects. How do you explain all the huge children these days? Healthier eating, yeah right...

We're slowly getting better about reading labels on food. I always read the nutritional facts, but rarely the ingredients. My wife explained what high fructose corn syrup is. I knew is was sugar, but I didn't realize it was as bad as she said. Now we have decided to stop eating foods that have it as an ingredient, except for the occasional sweet like M&Ms. No more fast food. No more bran flakes (why do bran flakes have HFCS anyway?).

We spent about 10 minutes in the store yesterday searching for bread that didn't have 1) enriched flour and 2) high fructose corn syrup. That was fun. The bread we thought was healthy for us, wasn't.

I guess the whole point of this, where do you draw the line? Unfortunately, most foods these days are tampered with in one way or another, or grown/manufactured/engineered in unacceptable ways. I cry for the future and my first unborn daughter who is on the way.

[exactly. now would you like one pie with that, or 2 for$1? -ed.]

I'd recommend cooking it yourself. The easiest way to get bread that's corn-syrup free is to make it (not that I've yet found the time to start doing that). It takes more time, but I find that building most of my dinners from scratch eliminates a lot of the problem foods. The big thing is to try to have a broad diet. I found when I was making the same thing every night we felt worse, and it got easier to be scared about lables. Variety makes it more likely that your body will be able to get rid of toxins since you're not adding to the pile in your digestive system every night.
Too many people, though, just look at a chemical or two that they've heard is bad. That's a good way to obsess, but it's not a particularly good plan for eating well. A key is to check things for Fat and Calories. When they're average for the product chances are you're getting something that hasn't been chemically mucked with to be lower fat or lower sugar. Then check out the ingredient list. You want the good ingredients to be higher in the list. But that comes back to cooking from scratch at least occasionally. To really know what proportions you're looking for in say, a loaf of bread, you need to know what actually goes into a loaf of bread. Sugar is unfortunately generally the third ingredient in bread (which is why bread is not necessarilly the best delivery mechanism for grains).

I'm with Tim on the bread baking front. yeah, okay, I've made bread three times in the 18 months since my kids were born, but things are getting easier, right? right?

i put a tablespoon on sugar into my three loaf batch, and that's just for the yeast to grow. when you buy the nice local expensive bread, it's usually also better quality.

we've found a nice happy medium with the food we give them (it's not perfect), but i have to say the milk issue is getting me very confused. Who knows what we'll do, but for now the kids love their industrial Trader Joe's milk. yum.

full disclosure - I work for organic valley.

if you're really interested in eating organic as well as supporting small, independent farmers who have a mission of working toward both economic and environmental sustainability for rural farm families then you do have choices beyond the large corporate farms. organic valley is the largest largest organic farmer-owned cooperative in north america and when you buy organic valley products instead of putting money in the pockets of multi-billion dollar corporations, you'll be supporting real people like travis forgues.

if you're a patron of whole foods and you buy their private label milk then you're already drinking organic valley milk :-)

[dude, whoever gets to meet their dairy man these days? Much less on the blogs? I think this will be the official Daddy Types Milk now. -ed.]

a good choice :-)

the cornicopia institute has also produced a scorecard for ranking organic dairy producers/marketers based on a variety of factors that are important to maintaining and supporting "family scale farming". with a score of 4 cows ( excellent ), organic valley gets an almost perfect rating. scroll down to the companies that rated 1 cow ( ethically challenged ) and you'll see some familiar names.

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