Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Largest Organic Milk Producer Uses Small- Farmer Exemption To Cut Costs

Aurora Organic Dairy is the largest organic milk and butter producer in the country, keeping thousands of cows at facilities mostly in Colorado. According to the company's web site, its
"new model" of organic production on a large scale meets "the fullest promise of (the) organic movement." Because of its nationwide distribution, Aurora produces private label and store brand organic dairy products for giant retailers including Wal-Mart, Costco, Target & Safeway.

But the company's self-congratulation has been met with boos and hisses from family-size organic milk farmers and organizations that represent them. These small-scale competitors charge that Aurora wants it both ways: produce on a large scale but claim a financial exemption meant to help small farmers.

The issue, however, is not the first controversy to blow through Aurora.

  • In April, 2007, the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed to revoke Aurora's organic certifications. The U.S.D.A. said it had found 14 "willful violations" of organic regulations including such basics as not giving cows sufficient access to pasture.
  • Instead of filing an appeal, which would have created an open proceeding and a record of testimony and is the usual next step in such cases, Aurora immediately began negotiating with the Bush Administration officials then heading the agency.
  • In August, 2007, Aurora signed a consent agreement with the government in which it agreed to make changes in its operation, but admitted no wrong-doing. The government also gave Aurora cover against charges that some of the milk it had been selling had not actually met organic guidelines. It did this by saying that the company's certifications were valid, thus making is possible for Aurora CEO Marc Peperzak to proudly declare, "Our milk is and always has been organic."
  • Critics called the settlement a whitewash, and in October, 2007, class action lawsuits alleging fraud by Aurora were filed.
With those lawsuits still pending, Aurora had to defend itself again this May at new USDA hearings about the seemingly esoteric "producer-handler" exemption. Production of milk in the U.S. is governed by very old laws intended to protect family farmers. One aspect of these laws is to exempt small dairy farmers who bottle their own milk from paying into a national fund used to promote milk consumption.

Aurora has claimed this exemption. According to Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst for the Cornucopia Institute, an advocacy group, this has saved Aurora millions of dollars, enabling it to undercut prices and threaten the livelihood of family farmers.

I contacted Aurora to get their side of this story. I wanted to know why they think they deserve to use the exemption, just how much money it saves them, and basic information like how many cows they actually raise. I wanted to interview someone at the top, preferably CEO Peperzak or President Mark Retzloff, who both proclaim their dedication to creation of sustainable systems of food production and the principles of the organic movement.

They declined my request, instead having an outside public relations representative forward an email to me. "We have no interest in responding to the latest round of baseless claims by Cornucopia Institute," it read. "Cornucopia has made clear that it is trying to run Aurora Organic out of business in order to drive up the price of organic milk."

So the acrimony continues while the U.S.D.A.'s hearing officer contemplates the testimony he recently heard before rendering a decision.

If you're a buyer of organic milk, it's up to you make up your own mind about all this. If you don't like what Aurora is doing, or think it's just fine, let them know. Here's their phone #: 720-564-6296.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Sweet Diesels Few & Far Between

I've been a fan of diesel cars ever since I wrote an article for Smithsonian magazine a few years ago about how people were making their own fuel out of waste grease or turning the grease into biodiesel at home. After doing the research, I became very optimistic about commercial biodiesel becoming available quickly, so I went out and bought a used 2002 Volkswagen Jetta diesel.

(Biodiesel can be used in existing diesel engines without modifying the engines. If you use strained grease, you need a dual fuel system so you can start and stop the engine with petroleum diesel. Otherwise, the gel in the grease creates clogs.)

I've been very happy with the Jetta: it rides like a much bigger car, even at fast highway speeds, and gets more than 40 mpg at the same time! Unlike pokey gasoline engine cars or hybrids that get similar mileage, the diesel has plenty of power--it's just plain fun to drive.

However, my hopes for commercial biodiesel have not turned into reality. There are all sorts of obstacles to getting the fuel distributed nationally, not least of them that regional fuel depots don't want to invest in necessary new facilities to handle it. Furthermore, we've been shipping most U.S. biodiesel to Europe where diesel cars dominate. And then, when the price of petroleum diesel finally dropped to more reasonable levels, it put biodiesel--made here mainly from soybeans--at a competitive disadvantage.

Even so, when we recently decided to get rid of our gas-powered family-sized car that we use for long trips, I thought I'd trade the Jetta for a new VW Passat diesel, which Volkswagen had promised to bring to the U.S. sometime this year. It's a bit larger and therefore a bit safer on highways where you dance with tractor-trailers, and yet would get excellent mileage.

But no. A spokesperson for VW says they've changed their minds, and there will be no Passat diesel anytime soon. Bummer.

Unfortunately, there are very few diesel cars yet available in the U.S. You can get an improved Jetta diesel or a diesel SUV in a luxury brand, but there are very few to choose from otherwise.

This despite the fact that diesels get 20 to 30% better mpg than comparable gas cars with all the torgue and durability you could want. And, thanks to new technology and ultra-low sulfur petro diesel, new models meet the strictest (California) air pollution standards.

Still, I was left with the reality that we needed another car, so I did the research, looking for a full-size gasoline vehicle with good mileage. So discouraging, because essentially there are none. Then I discovered the Mercedes Benz E320 diesel, introduced in 2008, with the new clean technology. It promised to get about 25 mpg in local driving, and in the 30s on the highway.

I located a used one with about 20,000 miles on it, trekking over the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey to see it. I got in for a test drive, and I hadn't gone 200 yards before a smile spread across my face: this is one sweet ride!

Quiet--no more loud diesel noise. Smoke-free--no more nasty tailpipe emissions. Smooth. Everything about this vehicle is smooth and powerful. I bought it.

It cost more than we'd expected to spend--although buying it used saved a lot--but we figure it will last a good 10 years. And I've been averaging close to 30 mpg in my combined stop-and-go and local highway driving.

Too bad the automakers are so slow about bringing more sweet diesels to U.S. car buyers.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Antioxident Vitamins C & E Can Have Negative Effects

Put the word "antioxident" on a packaged food, and folks are a lot more likely to buy it, say market researchers. And, since food companies' goal is to entice you to buy their products, they've been busy taking advantage of that reaction.

The problem is, there's little proof that added antioxidents help us stay healthy; instead some new evidence suggests they actually interfere with some of the benefits of exercising and losing weight.

Nutritionist Marion Nestle, who monitors the sins of the food industry from her perch at New York University, says hundreds of products now tout the presence of antioxidents, but that we're being fooled. In her blog, she says there's a "lack of evidence" of the benefits of artificially adding antioxidents to your diet in the form, for example, of vitamins C & E.

(In case you've been living in a bubble, antioxidents appear to play a powerful role in fending off cancer and diabetes and fighting the effects of aging.)

Today came the news that if you're on a weight reduction program and/or exercise regularly, taking vitamin C & E for their antioxident effects may, in fact, work against your health.

The study, reported in The New York Times, found that our bodies' natural reaction to exercise and weight loss is not only to mobilize our built-in natural antioxident defenses from free oxygen, but also to make us more sensitive to insulin. When the two vitamins were added to the diets of study subjects who were exercising and losing weight, the study showed they short-circuited our natural responses.

There's no debate that unprocessed foods in their natural state--like berries, broccoli, garlic, tomatoes and spinach--contain potent antioxidents in combination with many other nutrients. This combination isn't replicated by supplements. Also, while our bodies have evolved to handle the amounts of antioxidents present in fruit and vegetables, ingesting large amounts via supplements changes our bodies' reaction.

The bottom line is the same old boring one: spend your money on eating more fruit and vegetables instead of buying expensive packaged products with added antioxidents of dubious value.