It was a year ago when I ran into a few board members from our cooperative at World Dairy Expo. The Golden Guernsey plant in Waukesha had suddenly closed and I found out that day the Lifeway company had purchased the plant and would be bringing it back to life and Swiss Valley Farms had just scored a contract to supply them milk. This was great news for our farm and the rest of the Swiss Valley Farms coop members. Looking back, maybe I shouldn’t have been so excited.
Dairy farmers in the US are all independent, we choose which company we sell our milk to or we become members of coops and sell our milk through the coop. You may buy a gallon of Dean’s brand milk or Great Value milk at the store but that does not mean that Dean’s or Walmart owns dairy farms.
As members of Swiss Valley Farms, our milk could go to a Swiss Valley plant, like our Luana, IA or Mindoro, WI plants, they make excellent cream, blue and gorgonzola cheeses. However, our farm is a long and expensive haul from those plants and there are lots of closer Swiss Valley farms. Instead our coop sells the milk from the farms in our area to plants closer to our farms. Some days our milk goes to Kraft and is made into Philadelphia cream cheese, some days it goes to Edelweiss Creamery or Arena Cheese, some days it actually goes to a Dean’s plant and is bottled. Since Lifeway opened their plant, our milk has been going to Waukesha a few times a week.
I’ll be honest, before last year I had only heard of kefir a few times and I had never tried it. After hearing that our milk was going to be going into this mysterious to me product, I was a woman on a mission. Of course I not only had to try kefir, I had to find Lifeway kefir and encourage the grocery stores in our area to carry it. Afterall, good sales for Lifeway means good things for our coop and that means good things for the member owners like us.
I found the kefir and I really, really liked it. They say kefir is the champagne of dairy. I’m not sure that describes it, I think of it more as a smoothie without the blender or maybe a drinkable yogurt. Either way, it’s got lots of good probiotics in it and made my tummy pretty happy.
While I drank my first glass of my tasty newfound treat, I checked out the bottle. It was obvious that Lifeway liked buzzwords and food marketing trends…
While I was slightly annoyed by the silly amount of labels, logos and buzzwords on the bottle, that’s not what this post is about. When I turned the bottle I found something that confused me.
After reading the “Farmer’s Pledge” on the side of the bottle I checked to make sure that I wasn’t holding the Organic version of their product. Lifeway does have an Organic line and the statement on the side of the bottle would make more sense on that product. I wasn’t looking at the Organic version.
I sent a message to a few Swiss Valley board members with a picture of the bottle. Our milk wasn’t yet going to Lifeway, maybe they were going to be changing their label? I wanted to make sure that they were fully understanding that the milk from Swiss Valley farms wasn’t what their label said it was.
Phone calls from Swiss Valley to Lifeway were made, I heard back that Lifeway was planning on changing the label and that Swiss Valley made sure they fully understood that they were not buying organic milk from our cooperative. I continued to buy and enjoy Lifeway kefir. Our milk started going to their plant. Life was good! Then one day I noticed that the label had changed and I was reminded that you should be careful what you ask for.
Wait, what!?!?! Suddenly the label went from misleading to outright silly and misleading.
“Our milk comes from cows not treated with pesticides…”
A pesticide is something used to kill pests. Generally, when people talk about pesticides they are talking about using them on crops. While maybe using fly spray on our cows in the summer could possibly be considered “treating them with pesticides” I don’t think that’s what Lifeway was thinking of when they made this claim. Either way, I have not been informed that we can no longer use approved (yes, we must only use fly spray that has been approved for use on or around dairy cows) fly spray because our milk goes to Lifeway.
“Our milk comes from cows not treated with pesticides, antibiotics…”
Ok, again what does Lifeway mean here? Do they mean that they don’t allow milk from cows that are currently on antibiotics? Considering every tank of milk is tested for antibiotics every day, I don’t think Lifeway needs to advertise a basic safety fact about all milk. However, if they mean that the milk their Kefir comes from is from cows that have never in their lives been treated with an antibiotic, again that’s not representative of our farm or the other farms that are supplying their milk. Just to be crystal clear, we use antibiotics when a cow needs them to get better. The milk is dumped until it’s been tested to be clear of antibiotics.
“Our milk comes from cows not treated with pesticides, antibiotics, or synthetic growth hormones…”
They dropped the rBST claim, which was about the only thing that the first label had right. In doing so they also dropped the required FDA statement about milk from rBST treated cows being no different from milk from cows that have not been given rBST. Instead the new label has a vague claim about “synthetic hormones”. I’m not sure that the FDA would be pleased with this little tweak, but I’m not a lawyer for the FDA so I’ll let them figure that out.
“Cows are grass fed. GMO Free”
I guess technically our cows are grass fed, alfalfa is part of their diet but they are not exclusively grass fed, which I think is what most people think when they buy something that says grass fed. What about the GMO free claim? Again, technically the kefir and the cows aren’t genetically modified. However, the cows on most conventional farms do eat feed that is made from GMO plants. From my understanding those worried about consuming GMOs would be pretty upset to learn that the label claim is only true on a technicality.
I can’t call out other companies for their misleading marketing and turn a blind eye here. I hate to see any company knowingly market their product as something that it’s not. The folks at Lifeway are essentially marketing their non organic product as organic by using claims that would disqualify 99% of conventional dairy farms. Rather than pay the premium price to organic farmers and having an honest product, Lifeway is using vague claims that barely keep them out of legal trouble on technicalities.
I love to support the companies that do business with my farm but I will not support Lifeway lying to their customers about our farm.
UPDATE- I probably shouldn’t have looked at Lifeway Website but I did. Not only did they clarify their stance on GMO, Lifeway also explains that all their milk comes from Guernsey cows. Which I guarantee is not true now and was not true at any time.