Legal Complaint Filed by The Cornucopia Institute at USDA
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Mark Kastel, 608.625.2000
WASHINGTON: One of the nation’s most aggressive organic watchdogs filed a formal legal complaint today (8/10/06) against the country’s leading organic brand, Horizon, alleging a well-financed campaign to greenwash milk produced at factory farms that fail to meet USDA regulatory standards. The complaint and call for a thorough investigation was filed with the USDA’s Office of Compliance.
The crux of the controversy, which has smoldered within the organic industry for over six years, stems from a small handful of industrial-scale dairies, managing 2000-10,000 cows, that are allegedly producing milk in feedlot conditions without adequately grazing their cattle as required by law.
“These large factory farms, mostly operated in desert-like conditions in the arid West, have allegedly been doing more talking about pasturing their cows than the hard work required to truly produce organic milk,” said Mark Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst for The Cornucopia Institute, which filed a complaint. “What is even more repugnant to ethical farmers and consumers alike is that large corporations like Dean Foods, the world’s largest dairy concern with almost $11 billion in annual sales, are apparently trying to use their power to deceive loyal organic supporters,” Kastel added.
The current legal complaint alleges that Dean’s Idaho farm, now managing approximately 8000 head of cattle, has carefully created the “illusion” of pasturing, by putting their cows out on green fields”temporarily” for VIP visitors, but do not routinely offer pasture that has any feed value.
“I had the opportunity to visit, at the invitation of Dean Foods officers, their Idaho drylot dairy earlier this year,” said Kastel. “The majority of their cattle were in what they called their “winter housing,” which amounted to a confinement feedlot. They did constantly rotate cattle, during my visit, out to what they referred to as “pasture” but in actuality, it was just for show.”
The Wisconsin-based Cornucopia contends that the unusual pasture crop that they were offering their cows–mature oats, which had gone to seed and was about 2 1/2 feet tall–was not palatable or digestible by cattle and did not legally constitute pasture as defined by the federal regulations governing organic livestock production. “All the animals were doing was trampling down this tall crop and not consuming any nutrition. Instead, what they were really eating was highly refined feed from troughs in their feedlot, forcing them into a very high production and stressful existence,” Kastel lamented. Photographs of the Idaho farm can be viewed in Cornucopia’s photo gallery.
The complaint also cited, as evidence, the fact that they were putting cattle out on to what they call pasture in conditions of extreme heat, well into the 90s, without affording livestock any access to water. “If this is what Horizon is doing, their management doesn’t cut it under any valid definition of managed grazing,” says Joel McNair, publisher of Graze, a magazine that reports on dairy grazing. “Humane farming standards and common sense dictate that cattle have access to shade and water if they are going to be spending more than a few minutes in very hot and sunny conditions. At best cattle will graze very little under such conditions. At worst they will die.”
In prior interviews with employees at Dean’s Idaho facility, their technique was referred to as a, “dog and pony show” to impress visitors. Through these interviews, Cornucopia staff learned that Whole Foods CEO, John Mackey, and upper management from the nation’s leading natural foods grocer, were exposed, on May 15, to the same kind of “illusionary” farming practices that Kastel experienced during his visit in late June. In addition, a number of journalists were given the same make believe pasture show earlier in June.
The Cornucopia Institute’s legal complaint also included allegations that proper pasturing was not occurring on the corporation’s other large farm on the eastern shore of Maryland. “We have received expert testimony from a number of current and former employees, and outside contractors, who have told us that pasture had been eliminated this year as a primary feed source,” stated Will Fantle, the Research Director for the Institute. “In addition to first-hand testimony, we received photographic evidence of all cattle in confinement when pasture conditions and weather were ideally suited for grazing.”
Along with requiring access to pasture, the federal organic regulations very specifically outline when cattle can be temporarily kept in confinement due to concerns about the animals’ health or environmental factors.
“Our customers expressed skepticism that they were not getting what they thought they were when they bought a Horizon product,” said Goldie Caughlan, a former member of the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board and Nutrition Education Manager at the country’s largest natural foods cooperative, PCC Natural Markets in Seattle. “They said they felt misled by the Company’s corporate spin because organic milk by definition should be from cows grazed on pastures.” She stated the co-op agreed with their 40,000 members and recently dropped all Horizon products in their eight stores.
With the pasture controversy growing too hot to handle, Horizon announced last December a number of modifications to their factory farms that would make them more acceptable in the eyes of the organic consumers. Officers of Dean Foods and Horizon officials have since been hopscotching the country by corporate jet in an attempt to stem the exodus of consumers and retailers from the brand. In addition to actions by retailers, the largest organic consumers group in the country, the Organic Consumers Association, called for a boycott of Horizon products earlier this year.
If that’s not enough bad news for the country’s largest marketer of organic dairy products, Dean was forced to face off with concerned investors at their annual shareholder meeting, and spent at least a third of the meeting time attempting to refute the concerns articulated by the consumer and farm advocacy groups.
“It is important for Dean Foods to recognize that the concerns of investors focusing on corporate responsibility are aligned with their customers in the organic marketplace,” stated Margaret Weber, Coordinator of Corporate Responsibility for the Adrian Dominican Sisters.
“We have a saying out in the country, ‘You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear'” said Kastel. “We had been in discussions with Dean Foods for months trying to help them understand that no matter how much they spend on attempting to greenwash their factory farms, that scale of production will never be ethically acceptable to organic consumers.” While the company does buy organic milk from three hundred small farmers, some estimates place the firm’s reliance on factory farm milk at nearly 50% of its total supply.
The Cornucopia Institute stated that they still hold out hope that Dean Foods will shift their strategic direction, selling their holdings in corporate-owned factory-dairies, and shifting production, like the majority of their competitors, exclusively to family-scale dairy farms. “We stand ready to assist them if they decide to make that change to their business model,” Kastel said in closing.