By Will Fantle, The Cornucopia Institute
WhiteWave Foods, the former branded products division of the dairy giant Dean Foods, announced today that they had introduced non-organic grocery products under their Horizon label. Horizon Organic, primarily marketing dairy products, is the largest organic label in the marketplace and, up until the third quarter of 2013, was selling exclusively organic products.
WhiteWave, based in Bloomfield, Colorado, started test marketing Horizon brand macaroni and cheese dinners, in both certified organic and “classic” varieties, in select markets in the Northeast last year and formally introduced them to the market in December 2013.
“WhiteWave/Horizon joins a long line of corporate agribusinesses that have intentionally blurred the line between products they offer with all certified organic ingredients and others sold in similar packaging but containing materials that would never be accepted for use under the USDA organic seal,” said Mark A. Kastel, codirector of The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based organic industry watchdog.
Four of the six new Horizon Mac & Cheese packaged dinners are made with conventional or synthetic ingredients that would not be legally allowed in food labeled as “organic.”
One of the more egregious conventional ingredients WhiteWave is adding to their non-organic offerings of their macaroni and cheese is milk protein concentrate (MPC), a controversial product, often imported and of dubious quality, that substitutes for fresh milk.
John Peck, executive director of Family Farm Defenders, said that MPCs are “basically a way to drive down dairy prices received by farmers — they are the cheapest way to make dairy products.”
Family Farm Defenders, an advocacy group based in Wisconsin, has fought against the importation of massive quantities of MPCs from countries that don’t meet the same health and sanitary standards of U.S. dairy production. Milk protein concentrate is the lowest grade dairy byproduct left after milk processing according to Peck.
This is not the first time WhiteWave has been subject to criticism from members of the organic movement over devaluing the exclusive organic status of the Horizon label. In 2009 Dean Foods/WhiteWave introduced non-organic yogurt specifically targeting toddlers. Although containing organic milk, the yogurt contained conventional puréed fruits and vegetables that appeared on the “dirty dozen” list of produce containing the highest levels of dangerous agrochemical residue contamination.
“Organic consumers are amongst the most loyal in the marketplace,” stated Goldie Caughlan, a former member of the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board and a retired nutrition educator for PCC in Seattle, the nation’s largest consumer-owned natural foods co-op. “Consumers who patronize all-organic labels that later blur the lines on the store shelf by adding conventional products under the same brand, are all too often taken advantage of.”
Dean/WhiteWave has been subject to criticism ever since it began switching the Silk product line almost exclusively to conventional ingredients subsequent to its acquisition in 2002. Silk, a pioneering organic brand remains the leading producer of plant-based beverages. Until its acquisition it was a 100% organic company. Today, only 6% of products bearing the Silk label are certified organic.
“Silk endured extreme blowback in 2009 when they changed the most popular remaining organic varieties of their soy drink to ‘natural’ (using all conventional ingredients) without changing the packaging appearance or the UPC code,” Caughlan added. “Many retailers and their customers continued to purchase the product thinking it was organic. It created a massive dustup on social media when the duplicity was discovered.”
The Horizon label has also operated under a cloud, since the early 1990s, when it almost exclusively depended on giant factory farms, milking as many as 10,000 cows, for their supply of organic milk. Although they have added many family-scale farmers and suppliers, especially in the Northeast, the brand depends on massive industrial dairies for a large percentage of its milk.
Cornucopia’s research indicates that the reason there is such little price resistance to the premiums organic dairy commands at grocery stores is that milk drinkers think they are supporting a different kind of environmental ethic, a more humane animal husbandry model, and economic justice for family farmers — not giant Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) with their environmental liabilities, short and stressful lives for cows, and an exploited workforce primarily made up of hard-working immigrants.
Observed Cornucopia’s Kastel: “It was disappointing subterfuge to many when WhiteWave introduced conventional Horizon yogurt and then hired a popular web-based pediatrician, Dr. Alan Greene, to hype their products while simultaneously avowing their dedication to the organic movement, to farmers and consumers, at conferences across the country.”
“Although WhiteWave withdrew their conventional yogurt after the brouhaha, they do not seem to have learned the lesson that it’s unwise to abuse the trust of their organic customers,” Kastel added.
Will Fantle is the co-founder and co-director of The Cornucopia Institute, which is engaged in research and educational activities supporting the ecological principles and economic wisdom underlying sustainable and organic agriculture. Through research and investigations on agricultural and food issues, The Cornucopia Institute provides needed information to family farmers, consumers, stakeholders involved in the good food movement, and the media.
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