FRESNO, Calif. — Sales of organic milk are soaring, but watchdogs say some of the dairy products shoppers are consuming may not be as earth-friendly as the labels purport.
A large dairy in Tulare County recently became the first in California to have its organic certification suspended because it violated organic standards _ a move consumer advocates claimed as a victory.
"People should be able to buy organic milk with confidence," said Mark Kastel, co-director of the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based consumer watchdog group. "Our hope is that this is the first salvo in a crackdown against these industrial farms that are masquerading as being organic."
The Case Vander Eyk Jr. Dairy, a 10,000-cow operation in the San Joaquin Valley, can no longer produce or sell milk labeled as organic in the United States unless it is recertified, said Joan Shaffer, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program.
Officials at Vander Eyk, whose dairy cows produce both organic and conventional milk, did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
Horizon Organic _ a brand of Texas-based Dean Foods Co. that sells about 45 percent of the nation's organic milk _ stopped buying milk from Vander Eyk in December because it wasn't satisfied with the quality of the organic milk, spokeswoman Molly Keveney said.
On May 16, investigators working with a company that certifies organic dairies for the USDA found that Vander Eyk did not meet federal organic requirements. For dairies, that means proving that the herd eats organic feed, has not been dosed with hormones and has access to pasture, among other requirements.
To start selling cartons labeled as organic again, the company must submit new organic farming plans, fix previous noncompliances, pass inspections with a certifying agent and get final clearance from the USDA, said David Abney, general manager of Quality Assurance International, the San Diego-based firm that inspected the facility.
Experts say the government rarely suspends dairies' organic certification.
"It's more than a big slap on the wrist. There are a lot of dairy operations that if (that) happened they would go out of business," said Daniel Giacomini, a nutritional and management consultant in conventional and certified organic dairy operations.
Vander Eyk has been a target of consumer groups that argue some large factory farms are more likely to keep cows cooped up in pens and drive organic milk prices down, putting smaller family operations at a disadvantage.
But most dairy farmers are not particularly concerned with the size of the facilities, said Ed Maltby, executive director of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producer's Alliance.
"We're just worried about maintaining the integrity of the organic program," Maltby said. "We need to ensure that the certifiers are doing their job."
Kastel's group filed complaints with the USDA alleging that Vander Eyk and two other large organic dairies confined their cows too much to be considered organic.
Federal regulations don't specify how much time a cow should spend grazing in a pasture or how many cows can munch on the same acre of grass. But aerial photos of the Vander Eyk dairy showed large, barren feedlots and no pasture, Kastel said.
Consumers may perceive that milk produced by grass-eating cows is of higher quality than conventional dairy products, but they are equal, said Mike Marsh, a spokesman for the Western United Dairymen.
The average gallon of organic milk currently sells for almost double the price of regular milk. But the premium fetched by organic milk has been steadily falling, as conventional milk prices rise and the organic supply increases.
Less than 3 percent of dairies in California are certified organic, but production of organic milk almost doubled in the one-year period beginning April 2006, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.