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Making the Grade
With pesticide-free food grabbing shelf space at Wal-Mart, maybe you’re wondering if that $4 carton of organic milk measures up to your standards for sustainable farming. A new report card will help you decide. 

Dairy cows on pasture in northern California.
Courtesy of The Cornucopia Institute

During a harried trip to the supermarket, it would be great to think an organic label tells you everything you need to know, but as organics go mainstream some practices that meet USDA standards might not satisfy yours.

Did the cow producing your milk have a name? Or did it have a number? Did she harvest her own lunch in a grassy pasture? Or was a ration of organic feed emptied into a feedlot trough?

Paying the premium for organic has long meant hearing a reassuring story. That isn’t always the case today. But now there is a quick way for dairy consumers to find out if the organic label is more than a façade. The Cornucopia Institute, a research and advocacy group for sustainable and organic agricultural practices, offers a report card (http://cornucopia.org/dairysurvey/index.html) for the products you see in the dairy aisle. Companies earn both a numeric score and a rating ranging from one cow (ethically challenged) to five cows (outstanding). The evaluations factor in the health and treatment of the herd, including the amount of time cows spend in pastures and the use of antibiotics or hormones, but they also consider environmental and labor practices.

In markets where options are limited, Mark Kastel, co-founder of the institute, says that consumers asking their grocers for not just organic but also local products gives nearby farmers the support they need to transition to sustainable practices. And if an organic dairy product appears in your market but isn’t ranked, contact The Cornucopia Institute, and they will work to add it.

Read these related stories in Audubon:
Happy Meals,” by Rene Ebersole
A Taste for Conservation,” by Gretel Schueller

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