Halloween Trick — USDA lets “Organic” Factory Farms off the Hook

October 31st, 2007

Agency Fails to Take Enforcement Action against Industry Giants

Cornucopia, WI – The Cornucopia Institute sharply criticized the conclusion by USDA that an 8000-head factory dairy in Idaho was operating within the federal organic standards. Cornucopia had requested an investigation based on its site visit to the giant industrial-scale dairy, owned by Dean Foods, and the gathering of evidence from other industry professionals with first-hand knowledge of the operation.

The USDA informed Cornucopia today that it had closed its investigation into Dean Foods, Horizon dairy in Paul, Idaho and another corporate-owned facility in Kennedyville, Maryland. The USDA investigation was in response to a formal legal complaint filed by Cornucopia in 2006.

“We know from our visit to the Idaho facility that they had no functional pasture meeting legal requirements and were unable to graze their huge dairy herd,” said Mark Kastel, codirector of the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute. Cornucopia’s legal complaint included interviews with the veterinarian and with livestock professionals associated with Horizon’s Maryland dairy indicating that they were not pasturing the animals there, either.

The USDA’s findings regarding the dairies Dean Foods runs producing Horizon brand organic milk comes on the heels of a broiling controversy in the organic industry regarding other large corporate dairy marketers that have allegedly been scamming the public.

“This is the second time in two months that the USDA has sided with the operators of factory-farms, ignoring their impact on the reputation of the organic label, the economic damage they are doing to ethical, family-scale organic dairy farmers and the sham they are perpetrating on consumers who want to believe in the organic label,” said Jim Goodman, an organic dairy farmer milking 45 cows near Wonewoc, WI.

On August 31, the USDA made public its investigative findings, also pursuant to a Cornucopia legal complaint, regarding Aurora Organic Dairy, operator of five massive factory dairies and the leading supplier of private-label milk in the nation (Wal-Mart, Costco, Target, etc.). In the Aurora case, the USDA’s investigators found 14 “willful” violations of the federal law governing organics. However, the $100 million enterprise was allowed to continue in business and was not fined for the organic improprieties found by investigators.

Cornucopia emphasizes that based on their in-depth research 90% of all name-brand organic dairy products are produced with respect for both the letter and spirit of the organic law.

“It must pay to have powerful friends in Washington, DC!,” said Dave Minar, a long-time organic dairyman milking 150 cows near New Prague, Minnesota. “The USDA has ignored well-documented concerns about the propriety of these factory-farms for years, allowing large corporate agribusiness to take over a majority of the organic dairy business. This places ethical families like mine at a distinct competitive disadvantage.”

The Cornucopia Institute filed their legal complaint against the Dean/Horizon dairy, operating in desert-like conditions in Idaho after being invited to inspect the farm. Cornucopia found that from 2002-2006, like the Aurora operations, Horizon’s milk cows lacked access to any meaningful amount of pasture, as the law requires.

“Prior to our visit in 2006, Dean Foods quickly planted a crop of oats, not generally recognized as having value for grazing animals, so they could have something green on the ground surrounding their massive barns and feedlots,” said Kastel. “By the time we were there the mature, 2 foot tall oats were unpalatable by the animals and did not meet the legal definition of pasture.”

Within two weeks of their visit, Cornucopia supplied additional photographic evidence to the USDA illustrating that the oats had been mechanically harvested and all that was left surrounding the Dean/Horizon milking facility was the 3/4″ stubble and residue of the old crop.

“Based on the evidence collected, Dean Foods was clearly not operating a grass-based dairy,” stated Dick Parrott, a Twin Falls, ID organic livestock producer. “It costs more money, and is more labor intensive, to produce truly organic milk where the cows are not in confinement. The USDA’s ruling appears to be a grave injustice to the 1600 or so hard-working farm families who are rightly respected by organic consumers.”

The lack of enforcement action by the USDA in the Aurora matter has led to at least six class-action lawsuits around the country, representing consumers in over 30 states, filed against Aurora. The legal actions claim that organic milk drinkers were defrauded by the corporation’s labeling milk as organic that did not meet organic standards.

“There is a higher authority in this country than the USDA in these matters — the organic consumer. And they are now making their voices heard,” said Kastel.

Cornucopia has waged a long-term marketplace battle with both Dean Foods and Aurora. Their comprehensive report on the controversy, and scorecard rating all organic milk brands has cost the companies significant market share.

“Organic consumers feel betrayed by large corporate players trying to pass off milk from factory-farms as being ecologically sustainable or meeting their widely-held views concerning humane animal husbandry,” said Ronnie Cummins director of the Organic Consumers Association. “Besides for the question of their legality, these factory-farms do not meet the “spirit” of the organic law and no matter how much money Dean and Aurora spend on their greenwashing campaigns, they are unlikely to succeed in the long run.”

The Cornucopia Institute has announced its intention to seek a judicial review, by filing a federal lawsuit, challenging the USDA’s lack of enforcement and its abrogating the mandate received from Congress to protect the integrity of organic commerce.

“The USDA and the corporate players they are protecting have opened up a can of worms, and let me tell you these worms were not raised organically,” Kastel stated. Cornucopia stated they have already received inquiries from Congressional leadership in both parties that are interested in staging both hearings and requesting a thorough GAO study of this controversy.

“The USDA’s lack of enforcement illustrates that the concerns of many in the organic community, that the corporate-friendly USDA would betray organic ideals, might have been well-taken,” lamented Kastel. “However, too many good people have spent too many years building the organic label into something that has true economic value. I’ll be damned if we just hand this over to corporate exploiters without a fight.”

Cornucopia emphasizes that based on their in-depth research 90% of all name-brand organic dairy products are produced with respect for both the letter and spirit of the organic law.

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