Sunday, December 4, 2011

Californians: What's in your Raw Milk?

The information contained in the videos posted below, is powerful.

Organic Pastures is the largest legal raw milk dairy in CA, and perhaps the world. Mark McAfee, owner of Organic Pastures, is an outspoken proponent of raw milk and was one of the key note speakers at this years Weston A. Price Foundation Conference. When I met him at the raw milk rally to support the "Rawesome Three" this August, I was struck by his charm and ability to emotionally move and motivate people with his charisma. It was infectious.

The problem is, there are serious discrepancies between Organic Pastures marketing claims and what actually is occurring on their farm. I've been reading up and following The Complete Patient blog for awhile now. If you care about raw milk, this blog keeps it's pulse on North America's raw milk movement.

Mark McAfee posts there often and I was really very surprised with some of the things he would say and the tone of his posts. I was also concerned that some raw milk producers, especially the smaller ones, were highly suspicious of him and his dairy. They mainly objected to his RAWMI program.

I started getting more curious about the Organic Pastures dairy operation. I had literally bought into claims that raw milk is inherently safe and no harmful bacteria has ever been found in Organic Pastures milk. You can read more about their raw milk practices and safety here.

Organic Pastures is going through a tough time right now as the state of California has shut down production and sales of their raw milk the second time in 5 years due to 5 cases of ecoli 0157:H7 being linked to this diary through epidemiological data. Raw milk supporters and McAfee's customer base are outraged. They cannot believe that the state would shut down the dairy. They feel a recall would have been more than sufficient. They point to other "Big Ag" food born illness recalls as of late including eggs, spinach, and cantaloupe as being more of a menace to society than raw milk. Why shut down the dairy?

No one knows when the dairy will re-open but according to Organic Pastures they are hopeful distribution can begin as soon as next week. According to their press release this morning, e coli has been found in the manure of their calves. They are certain that the state will find the same in their testing.

I am certainly not trying to kick a man while he is down. Serious questions about the operations at Organic Pastures have been floating around for several years now. It just happens that these videos came out at the same time that Organic Pastures was ordered to shut down it's operations. I am pretty hopeful that it wasn't intentional or maligned. To be certain, this little article will not bring down Organic Pastures. Their fan/customer base is strong, and when they are up and running again I am sure they will be as financially successful as they have been in recent years. Some estimates in the comments section of The Complete Patient blog put the Organic Pastures Dairy's gross earnings at around $6 million per year. 

I am not arguing that raw milk is bad for you or even deadly. I am not saying we should not have the right to consume it. I regularly buy and drink raw milk! I am arguing that if producers are going to provide raw milk, at least give us the straight facts of how you 'grow' your raw milk.  We demand answers to tough questions from Big Ag and even our local food producers. Why not raw milk producers?

For Raw Milk Consumers:
While customers wait for Organic Pastures to reopen, I encourage OPDC customers to watch these videos and ask themselves a few questions:

1. Why does Organic Pastures state on their bottle that their milk comes from 100% grass fed cows. Clearly this is not the case.

2. Why does Organic Pastures have an open herd? What's the harm in having an open herd, you ask? I had those same questions. Fortunately for you and me, there are folks who have a passion for raw milk but also want to know if it is being produced in a responsible manner. Dr. Amanda Rose's history with Organic Pastures caught my eye, as well as her consumer guide for raw milk drinkers. She covers the open/closed herd question.

For Raw Milk advocates:
1) If OPDC is not forthright in their marketing, does it matter? Yes, because we, the raw milk consumers, are mislead.
2) 100% Grass-Fed is not a term to mess around with or dilute. It is highly irritating that farmers who are primarily grass farmers first and ranchers or dairymen second have to compete with producers who are not using the term appropriately.
3) I am fully aware that there is a higher demand for raw milk currently in CA then there is supply. I am fully aware that OPDC has helped to create this awareness of raw milk and demand for raw milk precisely because of McAfee's enthusiasm and marketing know how. To this I say, well, then market it like you do it, Organic Pastures. Otherwise, let a competitor or a few come in and above all, do it better.

What's my beef with Organic Pastures Beef?
Here is another example of misleading advertising. Organic Pastures began to sell ground beef from their spent dairy cows at farmer's markets and in stores this past October. I was alerted to their suspicious marketing because they sell their ground beef at the same price point as the grass-fed beef rancher that I buy from.

From their USDA Organic Ground Beef email launch:


Our cows graze on organic green pastures, all year long. Warm California sun + a lot of green pastures make for the best tasting beef with all the right nutritious, good healthy fats our bodies need and deserve. Our pasture fed animals are raised outdoors on pasture and treated humanily with organic practices. This combination makes the best meat around! We call it "back to basics". Our cows call it "AMAZING"!  We believe you will call it "the best beef you have ever had!" 

The problem I have with this is now they are directly competeing with an honest to goodness grassfed cattleman who prides himself in the taste of his beef and even borrows this rancher's marketing tagline with a slight twist: "The best beef you have ever had!" I beg to differ. Cattle that are raised for meat consumption on an 100% grass-fed cattle operation graze on irrigated pasture their whole lives (usually around 2-3 years old). The rancher I buy my meat from chose a specific breed, Lowline Cattle, specifically for the taste and quality of the meat. He grows 5 kinds of grass to produce the best tasting beef a la the Joel Salatin method which can be read up on in his book "Salad Bar Beef". He makes sure his beef is full of healthy fats, 15% fat to be sure. Organic Pastures USDA Organic Ground beef is less than 15% fat from dairy cows that stop producing (how old are the cows, when/why do they stop producing?) These are important questions to ask yourself. Why would you pay the same price per pound for different quality beef?

Not Grain-Finished

There are many different types of beef varieties available to purchase at the store. Grain adds weight, mostly in the form of fat, faster than grass. Weight equals money for the rancher. Americans are also used to more fat in their beef than most other people. Some find grass-fed beef too lean, but it is healthier and more flavorful. Corn is also the cheapest form of animal food, which is why most beef is grain fed or finished. We believe in quality NOT quantity. You will taste our quality in our healthy meat. 

This is highly misleading. According to the videos below, as well as from statements by their telephone representative, Organic Pastures dairy cows are given up to 4 lbs. of corn daily their whole milk producing lives, the same grain they say is the cheapest form of animal food! They also buy adult cows from other organic ranches, and who knows what they've been fed? I wonder what "not grain finished" really means? Does it mean that after the dairy cows are spent, they are stopped their grain rations and put out to pasture? How long are they off their grains? These questions matter.

Another point raised by a source who is in the know about small scale food distribution:
"distribution is always the key for any new venture, and Mark McAfee has worked hard over the years to develop his own distribution network in California. Most food producers don’t develop their own distribution, but wholesale out to distributors. So that gives McAfee a huge advantage over the smaller producers of beef because McAfee has his raw milk dairy network. Consumers beware!!"

And now, the videos:
This is from a blog for a new buyers club being set up in CA by the owners of Tropical Traditions. In an effort to track down a source legal raw milk in CA, for their buying club, they visited the two CA regulated dairies, Claravale and Organic Pastures. Having a background in researching and working with truly grassfed beef, chicken and egg ranches in Wisconsin's Amish country, the Shilhavy's know what to look for and what to ask when finding food resources for their own family and others.

I recommend that you read the full article, but here are the videos:


Organic Pastures

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