Archive for the ‘behind the label’ Category

Dope-Free Dairy

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

Part IV in the Sustainable Family Supper series

dairy cow

What’s the matter with rBST? I’ve written before about how my path to natural and organic food began with a look at milk. When I became pregnant with my son, milk took on a renewed significance as I eliminated sodas and caffeinated beverages from my diet. I finally got around to reading up on bovine growth hormones, a.k.a. rBST or rBGH. You probably already know that they are artificial hormones designed to increase estrogen in female cows, thus increasing their milk production. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved its use in 1993, and like with so many other issues, refused to reexamine its safety despite growing consumer pressure and health concerns. The problem, or problems, are that the unnatural increase in production leads cows to develop infections at much greater rates, requiring them to be more heavily treated with antibiotics, which are passed on to milk consumers and flow out into soil and water with the cows’ waste. Then, there are studies linking rBST with increased breast, prostate and colon cancers in humans. The most galling part of the whole situation, in my opinion, is the ridiculous requirement by the FDA that requires dairy producers who label their milk rBST-free to include a disclaimer stating that “there is no difference between milk from cows treated with rBST and those who are not.” Actually, there are scientific studies showing that rBST is harmful and yet the burden is on the good actors to refrain from impugning the “good” name of the producers who continue to use rBST in the face of such studies.

Consumers Fight Back: The good news is that after repeatedly losing attempts in state legislatures to ban the use of rBST-free labels entirely (hello consumers’ right to know what they’re eating!), in the face of growing consumer pressure against the use of artificial hormones, its creator Monsanto actually sold off the product last year. Meanwhile, consumer campaigns targeting major dairy companies and grocers have successfully forced many companies to voluntarily reject the use of milk from cows treated with rBST. You can sign up to receive alerts from the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) to stay apprised of the latest. Food & Water Watch offers downloadable and mobile (iPhone/Blackberry) lists of rBST-free brands by state. Last month, Dannon and Yoplait joined the roster of major yogurt producers rejecting rBST milk (Stoneyfield has never used it). In the cheese world, Tillamook‘s farmer cooperative led the industry in adopting a rBST-free policy back in 2005. Cabot Creamery is the latest to get on the drug-free dairy bandwagon, announcing that they will finally stop accepting rBST-containing milk as of August 1, 2009. Even *some* Kraft cheese products (2% milk line) are rBST-free.

Next Stop, Schools: So if consumers won’t buy it, where’s rBST-treated cows milk going? Some is still in use commercially, and of course much winds up in schools. Food & Water Watch has a campaign underway, coinciding with this year’s reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, urging Congress to give schools the ability to let schools choose to use rBST-free and/or organic milk. According to Food & Water Watch, one out of five pints of the milk served to public schoolchildren may contain rBST. (Visit their School Milk action center to learn more.)

Better Yet, Drink Organic: If you already drink rBST-free milk, you might also want to consider organic. If you have to choose what to buy organic, organic milk and meat may be more beneficial than organic produce because the pesticides on cows’ feed are concentrated in their digestive system – and nonorganic feed includes genetically-modified (GMO) grain. And make sure that you’re choosing a brand that scores well on the Cornucopia Institute organic dairy study, because while organic certification guarantees that cows are fed GMO- and pesticide-free grain, it does not guarantee that the cows were allowed to graze on grass or treated humanely. Certain big-organic producers (Aurora and Horizon, notably) are only slightly better than conventional feedlot operations. (There’s a reason some store-brand “organic” milk is priced significantly lower – avoid Safeway, Giant, Publix and Costco store brands, which are sourced from Aurora Organics, a company found by the USDA to have “willfully” violated 14 criteria of the federal organic standard. Visit the Organic Consumer Association action page to sign a petition asking these company CEOs to boycott green-washing “organic” suppliers.)

We’re lucky to have a local, though not organic-certified, dairy delivery service, but when I have to buy milk between deliveries or on the road, I try to find Organic Valley. They are a co-operative of farms organized regionally, so the milk you buy may actually be fairly locally-produced, and they provide support to their farmers to make their farms more environmentally-friendly, such as helping their member farms obtain grants to place wind turbines on their farms. I attended a presentation by an Organic Valley farmer at last fall’s Green Festival and fell in love with the adorable pictures of his happy little cows and tale of how they prefer listening to rock music over classical. A recent study found that cows who are called by name (typically signifying a higher level of care) produce more milk, naturally. I may be a little idealistic, but shouldn’t every cow live like that?

What About Raw Milk? I haven’t read enough yet to take an informed opinion on the highly controversial issue of raw milk. Its sale is banned here in Maryland and Virginia (unless in a “cow share” program in VA), so I haven’t had the option of trying it. (At least not since I was a kid with cow-owning friends! Its true nothing else tastes like truly fresh milk.) On the one hand, I’m inclined to trust farmers who are praticing time-tested method,s and raw milk proponents insist that there are a wealth of health benefits to drinking raw. On the other hand, cows are naturally dirty animals! (That’s not a scientific argument, just an observation.) All the more reason to get to know your food’s producers, of course, whatever the product. At any rate, if you want to learn more, CheeseSlave has a great post on the reasons she chooses raw milk and links to more resources.

Organic Spiced Cranberry Sauce

Thursday, November 20th, 2008

Now that we’ve covered why organic cranberries are important for your health and the environment, how easy are they to find? Read on for my shopping recap, or just skip to the bottom for my Spiced Cranberry Sauce recipe.

I scoured the produce sections at three local grocery stores, Safeway, Giant and Whole Foods. I generally find that Giant has a better selection of organics than Safeway, but I was intrigued by the promise of “locally grown” berries in yesterday’s Safeway ad. My hopes were quickly dashed when bags of Ocean Spray were all I could find – bags labeled, “Product of Canada,” at that. I asked the produce manager to verify that was all they had, and he reported that they stocked organic cranberries last year but none were sent this year. To his credit, he did try to be helpful and suggest I just go to Whole Foods…

I was hoping to prove that you could find organic cranberries without having to go to an organic market, so I continued on to Giant, a local chain. I did see a few more organic items, potatoes, onions, etc. at first glance, but was about to give up when I spotted two lone boxes of organic cranberries. (Naturipe brand from Wisconsin.) Score! I do hope they are planning to restock before the holiday, though. Curiously, Giant’s bagged Ocean Spray berries were “Product of USA,” stating that they were packed in Wisconsin, Massachusetts or Washington. Not the most helpful if you’re trying to plan a 100-mile Thanksgiving, but slightly more local than Canadian berries for most of us in the states. (I guess if you’re in Minnesota you can go either way.)

On then to Whole Foods, which offered two choices, organic from a family farm in Massachusetts (Orcranic brand), and Ocean Spray branded IPM berries from New Jersey. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) attempts to use natural methods first and pesticides as a last resort, but the consumer has no way of knowing what that means in actual quantities of chemicals unless you can talk to the producer directly. It is generally preferable to conventional, at any rate.

How do the prices stack up?

  • Safeway: No organic fresh cranberries.
  • Giant: Naturipe brand organic cranberries, $2.99 (in-store only, not available through Peapod delivery service).
  • Whole Foods: Orcranic brand organic cranberries, $4.99; Ocean Spray IPM cranberries, $3.99.

Now I was primarily focused on fresh berries, but I perused the dried and canned options at each store as well, for those who have to have the can or just like to snack on dried berries year round. Here’s the scorecard:

  • Safeway: Newman’s Own Organic (from US or Canada) $2.99 (4oz.) vs. Sun-Maid “Cape Cod” conventional cranberries, $3.99 (6oz.)
    No organic canned cranberry sauce.
  • Giant: Nature’s Promise (store brand) organic dried cranberries, $5.99 (9 oz.). (Out of stock yesterday, but available through Peapod.)
    No organic canned canned cranberry sauce. (Ocean Spray conventional, $1.00.)
  • Whole Foods: Organic cans, 365 brand, $1.79.

Recipe: Organic Spiced Cranberry Sauce

Cranberry sauce is surprisingly easy to make, and can be made ahead of time and stored up to a week in the refrigerator. This simple spiced version incorporates other classic fall flavors, apple cider and maple syrup, to lend a dark (and healthier) sweetness. I used the Orcranics for this, and they were firm, tart and full of flavor.

Ingredients:

  • 1 12 ounce bag organic fresh cranberries, rinsed
  • 1 cup apple cider
  • 1/3 cup maple syrup
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon allspice

Instructions: Place all ingredients in a medium sized saucepan and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Berries will pop and burst. Don’t worry if it is still slightly runny, it will set up more as it cools. Remove from heat and cool; refrigerate until ready to serve. Makes the equivalent of one can, but tastes infinitely better! Enjoy!

Have you seen organic fresh cranberries in your local grocery? Let me know!

Fresh from the Cranberry Bogs

Wednesday, November 19th, 2008

Part One of Two on sustainable cranberry sauce for your Thanksgiving dinner… While cranberry-sauce-in-a-can is always on our Thanksgiving table to appease my “traditionalist” husband and in-laws, I make one or two fresh variations as well. I’ve always been intrigued by the notion of cranberry bogs. While my home state Oregon actually boasts a few, I have never seen one in person. In other random cranberry facts, did you know that cranberries are one of the few native North American fruits? And that the cranberry capital of the US is Wisconsin, with Massachusetts in second place? Nutritionally, cranberries provide a boost of antioxidants, vitamin C and fiber.

If you’re like me, one of the first steps you probably took to “go green” was swapping out plastic bottles for a few reusable bottles. (We’re fans of the Sigg (especially for kids) and Klean Kanteen here at the Foodie Tots household.) Then you probably started noticing the news reports about what’s really in that bottled water and just how polluted your tap water really is. (Especially if you’re lucky enough to live in lead pipe-supplied D.C.) Yeah yeah, enough with the science lesson, how does this relate to Thanksgiving dinner?

Cranberry bogs. I was brushing off my maple cranberry sauce recipe and started wondering just what chemicals might lurk in those mysterious bogs. Then I realized they probably add pesticides on top of whatever groundwater contaminants are already there. Sure enough, cranberries are treated with 22 different types of pesticides (and herbicides, fungicides, etc.), which are then discharged into lakes, rivers and wetlands. And cranberry bogs are exempt from the Clean Water Act (!).

So I pointed my trusty Google towards “organic cranberry bog” and discovered this great little video from Nantucket, Connecticut, where the Nantucket Conservation Fund is slowly converting traditional bogs to all-natural cranberry plots. (Remember that crops have to be grown organically for a number of years before they can obtain organic certification, so there is a significant lag time.)

As retold in the video, their organic cranberries garner three times the price of conventional, but they put about four times as much labor into maintaining the bogs. Organic bogs also produce a lower yield, which is further disincentive in a conventional food system that values quantity over all else. They are making progress, however. The University of Massachusetts-Amherst’s Cranberry Station is also conducting research and outreach to increase the use of integrated pest management (IPM, or less-pesticide) techniques in cranberry bogs.

So check your local grocery and spring for the organic berries if you can find them – Thanksgiving only comes once a year, after all, and now you can enjoy your meal knowing a little less pesticide is entering our water (and your kids – after all, cranberries soaking in toxins for months at a time can’t simply be rinsed clean). And you can wash it down with organic Triple Eight cranberry vodka, straight from Nantucket.

Up next, where to find organic cranberries and a recipe to enjoy them in.

“Behind the label” is a new series by FoodieTots.com that highlights the sustainability issues behind our food, and brings you the facts you won’t find in the glossy food mags who rely on ad revenue from big agribusiness.

Ingredients: