USDA investigation into local company puts spotlight on fight over organic labeling

By Ben Ready
The Longmont Daily Times-Call

PLATTEVILLE — Officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture are formally investigating a local dairy after receiving complaints last year from a Wisconsin farming activist group made up of organic purists.

But as much as the investigation’s focus is on Boulder-based Aurora Organic Dairy and its operations in Platteville, it is also putting a spotlight on industry infighting over vague and confusing federal rules governing organic foods.

Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute filed formal complaints against Aurora with the USDA in January 2005 and November 2005, claiming that when Aurora Dairy cows die or stop lactating, they are replaced with new cows that have not been certified organic.

Aurora ranchers, Cornucopia said in its complaint, cannot prove their cows have eaten only certain foods, get regular exercise and pasture time, live in certain sanitary conditions, and have not been injected with hormones or drugs, as required under organic rules.

According to the complaints, Aurora’s replacement cows were supplied by a rancher who has insufficient records to show the cows were raised organically.

Those cows, Cornucopia said, “were on pasture for no more than two weeks (out of a period of more than a year) before delivery to Aurora and were otherwise confined to a feedlot.”

Cornucopia doesn’t claim Aurora Dairy’s milk is unsafe to drink, Cornucopia co-founder Mark Kastel told the Daily Times-Call in an interview, but that its “factory mega-farm” practices undermine the value of the organic label.

“You can’t milk 2-, 3- 4- or 5,000 cows three or more times a day and give them legitimate access to pasture,” Kastel said. “You can’t logistically move them to pasture and back again.”

But while Cornucopia’s complaint focuses specifically on Aurora, Kastel also has gripes against what he calls watered-down organic standards, making large-scale corporate dairy production nearly indistinguishable from non-organic production.

Aurora’s Platteville dairy has 4,000 cows and employs about 70 workers. The company, whose administrative offices are in Boulder, also controls a Platteville milk plant and a 3,800-cow dairy in Dublin, Texas. This fall, the company will open a third ranch with 3,200 organic cows on 800 acres in Kersey.

Aurora Dairy marketing vice president Clark Driftmier said he has two problems with Cornucopia’s accusations. First, the USDA — not Cornucopia — makes the rules.

“All of our facilities have always had valid, up-to-date organic certifications and always will, as monitored and audited by a USDA-accredited certifier,” he said.

Second, he continued, Cornucopia’s complaints and its organic dairy rating system — which gave Aurora and 10 other organic dairies the worst possible rating among 68 evaluated producers — are based on biased and unscientific research.

“They are trying to drive a wedge down the middle of the organic dairy (industry), with themselves as the point of the wedge for their own economic gain,” Driftmier said. “The more they can inflame and disparage, the more press they get and the more donations they get.”

According to its Web site, Cornucopia fights for “economic justice for the family-scale farming community.” It also says it serves as a watchdog over corporations that would compromise the credibility of the organic food label in pursuit of profits, but it is not accredited by the USDA to make organic certifications.

Driftmier said many of the highest ratings in the Cornucopia study have gone to companies that are members of or contribute financially to the institute.

Both sides in the dispute say the USDA can’t put a stop to the finger pointing.

After 1990, when Congress passed a law requiring national standards for organic products, the USDA took 12 years to draft a set of guidelines regarding how livestock, poultry and crops could earn the increasingly valuable “organic certified” label.

Now, the National Organic Program Standards Board is still hearing from organic dairy farmers and has convened a symposium to help update rules for organic dairies, particularly those on pasture requirements.

In fact, 148 industry insiders, including Cornucopia and Aurora, have sent letters to the board in anticipation of the April 18 symposium in Pennsylvania.

“USDA was urged to proceed to amend the NOP regulations concerning pasture for dairy animals,” the USDA wrote in its symposium announcement.

Some organic farmers wrote that the rules don’t need to be modified, while others plead for the board to further distinguish organic from non-organic treatment of dairy cows.

For example, one group of small farmers, including a Minnesota family, wrote that dairy producers worthy of the organic label should be allowed a “maximum stocking rate of three lactating dairy cows per acre.”

National Organic Program guidelines say livestock must have access to outdoors, direct sunlight and other conditions “suitable to the species, its stage of production, the climate and environment.” The guidelines also require that cows have “access to pasture for ruminants.” But the program does not say how much pasture land is required for how many animals, nor how long cows should be in a pasture.

“It’s not specific,” admits Joan Shaffer, a USDA organic program spokeswoman. “It doesn’t say how many days (cows should pasture). That’s what the April standards board is meeting about.”

Further complicating the vague rules is that the USDA doesn’t certify farms itself, but instead accredits certification groups, such as the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s Division of Plant Industry, which then certifies producers such as the Aurora Organic Dairy, which the division last certified Dec. 14, 2005.

And as long as a certifying group’s criteria meet the nebulous federal definitions, it can certify producers, who can then label their products as organic.

“The whole organic program is only a marketing program. If you get certified, you meet the standard, you can use the term “organic,” said Shaffer. “It costs more to produce, so you can charge more.”

Though she couldn’t speak specifically to the Aurora investigation, USDA spokeswoman Becky Unkenholz said the majority of her agency’s investigations come from complaints, leaving the USDA little time for random site checks of organic farms.

“Because the program is new, I can’t say there will be fines, there will be this or that,” she said. “It depends on the case.”

Unkenholz said she didn’t know how many organic farms have been investigated since 2002, nor how many have been fined or lost the right to label their products “organic.”

Aurora officials say their cows spend “widely varying” amounts of time in pasture, but that they are in pasture all winter.

Driftmier said that, in anticipation of the possible tightening of USDA organic standards, the Aurora Dairy is moving toward larger farms and increased pasture time.

“Because it’s such a young law and program, they’re still changing or clarifying rules and figuring out how best to go forward,” he said.

In a written statement criticizing the validity of Cornucopia’s ratings, Aurora also defended itself saying, “Our farms, like all organic farms, are changing and evolving as we develop our organic integrity.”

At Aurora’s future High Plains organic dairy in Kersey, all animals — including lactating animals — will have access to pasture every day, Driftmier said.

Ben Ready can be reached at 303-684-5326, or by e-mail at [email protected].

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