Organic Cheese: Friend or Foe?

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

With Earth Day upon us, we find it only appropriate to devote this week’s Cheesemonger contribution to one of the fastest growing sectors of the food industry and how it relates to cheese. What is organic cheese, and is it necessarily better?

You may be surprised to know that there isn’t actually too much organic cheese on the market. Or, more accurately, there’s not much certified organic cheese out there. And this is the continually tricky loophole about the term “organic.”

Walk into any deli or non-gourmet grocery store and you’re likely able to find Horizon Organic cheddar or Organic Valley swiss. Are these wedges automatically smart purchases to make because of their designated organic status? Clearly this is a rhetorical question, as these “industrial organic” brands are everywhere; the antithesis of your ma and pop cheesemakers.

A more debatable discussion would concern the nature of organic certification and why some cheesemakers are certified and some aren’t. Check out the USDA’s website for full coverage on the ins and outs of the process but in short, to be organic, the product must be certified by a third party and the product must meet certain guidelines. After serious rounds (and years) of tests, follow-ups, and documentation, a producer can gain organic labeling if their product is fertilizer-, hormone-, pesticide-, and antibiotic-free. Animals must have an all-organic diet, and if they’re out on grass, the land must be treated organically, as well.

More often than not, being able to call their product organic isn’t a priority for the small farmer. Organic certification is expensive and extensive with red tape aplenty. And keep in mind that the term “organic” is not an umbrella statement that deems everything “good” that falls under its definition. For example, it doesn’t address is the living conditions of animals. Just because a cow eats organic grain doesn’t mean that they’re not in feed lots without access to pasture. Conversely, just because a meat product says that the animal was “pasture-raised” or “grass-fed” doesn’t mean that the grass hadn’t been treated with fertilizers or other harsh, non-sustainable chemicals.

So how to be more confident in your food choices? Are organic foods to be or not to be trusted? The best solution we’ve found is to know your retailer, or better yet, know your producer. Keep asking questions, and not the rhetorical ones.