The consumption of certain products can contain inherent ethical conundrums -- and those are the sorts of conundrums that cause outright hostility between, say, vegans and carnivores. What you eat is part of the issue, but another equally important component is how that food product was created and, perhaps, how the animal involved in creating it was treated.
"How our food is produced has always been a concern of ours," says Heather Isley, vice president of Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage, which recently banned all confinement dairy products from its shelves. The new corporate guidelines require that milk ingredients in any products are sourced from dairies that provide their cows access to pasture and a natural diet of grass and forage -- and those dairies also may not use non-therapeutic antibiotics, hormone treatments, growth-promoting materials or feed containing animal byproducts.
"The natural food industry has gone through a lot of changes," Isley notes, "and we had been working under the assumption that the dairy farms we were buying from were the same pasture-based companies they were when they were first established."
After Isley was asked a question regarding bovine antibiotics last summer, she began investigating -- and she discovered something she didn't expect. "It became clear to me that some companies that had been long-term natural food companies had potentially switched their production methods from pasture-based to confinement dairy," she says. "And this was completely against what our customers want and what we want to support in a marketplace. So we felt it was time to be really clear and transparent, just as we are with our meat products, to make sure everyone understands what's happening with dairy and to bring up this conversation about how our food is raised."
Isley notes that this decision is aligned with other food policies at Natural Grocers. "We only sell organic produce, and we only sell naturally raised meats," she says. (Full policies explaining how Natural Grocers defines "naturally raised" are available on the company's website, naturalgrocers.com.)
"Our consumers appreciate the fact that we are transparent and that they don't have to be confused about what they're purchasing when they come into our stores," she adds. "There are some people who are disappointed that their favorite brand is now gone -- but they also say they didn't realize that it was made from cows that were kept in confinement. And that transparency is important to us."
Isley says that the company first looks at certifiers that are in alignment with the Natural Grocers standards -- for example, the certified organic standard for dairy includes a pasture-based requirement. "We do feel it's important to look at facilities and spot-check those brands," Isley says, "but they don't need as much scrutiny because that organic certification system should be in place and working. And for companies that are not certified organic, we do go out and look at their processes."
The ultimate goal, she notes, is consumer education and transparency. "We want to really ensure that consumers know what they're purchasing when they come and shop with us," she says. "It is hard to wade through labels because current government policies make it difficult to figure out, particularly in terms of animal products, where those foods are coming from."
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