Lucas Sjostrom
Lucas Sjostrom

Horses aren’t allowed to be slaughtered in parts of Washingtonhogs can’t be born in farrowing stalls in some states, and chickens may or may not be subject to certain, debated, housing requirements in California. But outside a few videos depicting inexcusable animal abuse, dairy farms have stayed out of the animal rights activist limelight. 

Everyone seems to agree that cows generally have life pretty good. Or, at least they did, until recently.

Now, activists and food companies are finding ways to drag dairy cows through the mud; by targeting their feed.

Genetically modified feed is how the vast majority of nonorganic cows in this country are raised. As farmers know, that statement sounds a lot worse than it is, because the “GM” part of the feed simply makes corn, soybeans, cotton, or alfalfa resistant to a chemical that has a mammalian toxicity similar to vinegar or salt water.

Lifeway Foods labels disputed

But, if your goal is to end dairy production or move people from conventional milk to your product, you need to go after what is fed to the cows, since the milk itself is pretty darn good and all-natural.

In October, Lifeway Foods was in the crosshairs of a campaign by Carrie Mess on her blog, Dairy Carrie. Her post,“Lifeway is lying about our farm” illustrated that while Lifeway claimed to get only milk from cows who never ate GMO-derived feed, the milk truck that came to her farm often supplied the Lifeway Waukesha, Wis., plant. And Mess was pretty sure her cows’ feed wasn’t from non-GMO crops, since she lives within feet of where those crops grow.

Mess’ post was seen by over 100,000 people, and also showed that on their website, Lifeway claimed to use only Guernsey-derived milk (which a Dairy Herd Management analysis found is likely impossible based on the dollar amount of milk purchased according to Lifeway Foods’ annual report). Mess’ post shows there may be a lot of confusion on the processing side of the dairy industry as to what people are buying. 

Lifeway bought the Waukesha plant previously associated with the brand name Golden Guernsey in May 2013, but was buying milk from Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) and Swiss Valley Farms according to a plant employee. Swiss Valley is the farmer-owned cooperative of which Mess is a member. Neither cooperative has an all-Guernsey or all-non-GMO source of milk to anyone’s knowledge, except DFA does pickup organic milk in some regions.

Rather than apologizing for the claims, Lifeway doubled-down and is telling concerned customers via email and social media that it cut ties with Swiss Valley Farms. An employee at Lifeway’s Waukesha plant told Dairy Herd Management that now the Wisconsin milk supply comes completely from DFA, and that the move was made “to narrow it down to one supplier.” The Lifeway plant in Pennsylvania comes from a different supplier, the employee said.

A Swiss Valley representative told Dairy Herd Management that Lifeway provided no reason for ending their contract, which occurred just days after the Dairy Carrie post went live. Swiss Valley’s representative also insisted that their contract said nothing about milk being derived from GMO free feeds, and that Lifeway never made any communication to ask for such a product.

A representative for DFA did not return calls or emails on the subject.

A week after the Lifeway incident, we reported that Chobani partnered with Green America in looking to source non-GMO feeds for its milk supply. Within 12 hours of us posting the story, Chobani called to distance itself from any commitment to the search.

Land O’Lakes and Dean Foods a new target

The GMO bandwagon is an easy one to jump on, since there are only 9 species with commercial GMO products (alfalfa, canola, corn, cotton, papaya, soybeans, sugar beats, zucchini/yellow summer squash, and, just announced, potatoes). If you have a plant or animal product without one of those ingredients, it’s automatically GMO-free. 

Green America, the company reportedly partnering with Chobani to look for non-GMO sources of feed and also behind the website, is now targeting Dean Foods and affiliated brands. The GMO Inside website asks people to sign a petition, call Dean Foods, post on the Land O’Lakes Facebook page (which they incorrectly describe as a brand of Dean Foods) and to share the action with their friends.

It’s unclear how long this specific campaign has been waged, but over the past several weeks angry comments have flooded the Land O’Lakes Facebook page, which is a farmer-owned cooperative. None of the press releases on the GMOInside website reflect the position, but recent Facebook images made by GMOInside are being shared across other anti-GMO websites and supporters of the cause.

What’s next?

For those of you keeping score, you can still safely buy glyphosate in the same cart as your Cheerios. But as the confusing war against biotech crops wages on, Cheerios is soon labeling itself as a product that is free of plants that are resistant to glyphosate.

While cow feed would seem far down on the activist hit-list, it just goes to show that you just never know what’s going to happen next.