Industry Coalition Demanding Organic Integrity Prevails
PIXLEY, CA: After a seven-year-long battle between organic farmers and consumers and the USDA, the first of a handful of industrial-scale dairies, producing what they claimed was organic milk, has been shut down by regulatory authorities. It was announced today by an organic industry watchdog group that a 10,000-cow feedlot dairy, near Fresno in central California, was found to be operating outside of the organic law and has had their certificate to produce organic milk suspended.
The Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group based in Wisconsin, which acts as an organic industry watchdog, announced that the Case Vander Eyk Jr. Dairy in Pixley, California, has been forced to suspend selling organic milk. In early 2005, Cornucopia filed the first of a series of formal legal complaints with the USDA against large factory-farm operators, including Vander Eyk, alleging that the mammoth “factory farms” were violating the spirit and letter of the organic law by confining their animals to pens and sheds rather than grazing them.
“This is a big victory for the farm families around the country who work so hard to create milk and dairy products that meet a high ethical standard,” said Mark Kastel, Cornucopia’s senior farm policy analyst. “Scofflaws, like the Vander Eyk dairy, place family farmers, who respect the organic law and the expectations of their customers, at a competitive disadvantage.”
According to governmental regulators the dairy lost its ability to ship organic milk last month after receiving a notice of suspension from its USDA-accredited certifier, Quality Assurance International (QAI), for serious questions surrounding the record-keeping such as assuring that cows are actually managed organically (without antibiotics and hormones), fed organically produced feed (without toxic pesticides and herbicides), and are allowed to graze rather than being confined in a feedlot.
“The foundation of the entire oversight system for organic production is the ability for a certifier to carefully audit a farm’s records to assure that all agronomic production, animal husbandry practices, and off-farm inputs meet legal organic requirements,” said Kastel. The Vander Eyk dairy is an aberration not only in size but because it is also a “split” operation milking both organic and conventional cattle in the same facility. “Although not specifically banned by law, most organic milk marketers prohibit split operations and require their farms to be 100% organic. “Split operations leave too much opportunity for error or potential fraud,” Kastel added.
QAI has been widely criticized in the organic industry for certifying Vander Eyk and a number of other large industrial-scale dairies in the desertlike conditions of the West, where cattle have little if any access to pasture. The Cornucopia Institute has also filed legal complaints against dairies owned by Dean Foods (Horizon Organics), which owns an 8000-head dairy in Idaho, and Aurora Organic Dairy, milking thousands of cows in Texas and Colorado, which produces private-label milk for grocery chains including Wild Oats, Trader Joe’s, Safeway, and Wal-Mart. Until recently Dean Foods, the industry leader, was purchasing some of its organic milk from Vander Eyk.
“It’s excellent to see QAI fulfilling their responsibility under the organic law and protecting the interest of farmers and consumers” said Lisa McCrory, a certification expert with 13 years of experience for Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont. “This is an example of the system working as it was designed–organic inspectors uncovering problems and protecting the public by shutting down farmers or processors if problems are discovered.”
Kastel agrees, but his enthusiasm is tempered by the fact that, “Regardless of any problems with the farm’s records, and being able to prove that they were responsibly practicing organic agriculture, factory-farms with thousands of animals, and lacking the ability to provide them with adequate and legitimate pasture, should never have been certified in the first place.”
“When I purchase organic milk I assume that part of the reason it is more expensive is I am supporting family farms that truly care for their animals, not giant factory-farms that might abuse their cows or employees,” said loyal organic consumer Susan Loesser who lives outside of New York City. In addition to concerns about animal welfare, Vander Eyk also paid out $360,000 in January 2005 as part of a court-supervised settlement with their mostly Hispanic employees who had accused the dairy of exploitive employment practices.
The Cornucopia Institute says that the good news about organic dairy products is that the vast majority are produced with high integrity and meet the spirit and letter of the organic law. In 2006 they published a comprehensive report and scorecard (https://www.cornucopia.org/dairysurvey/index.html) that rated the 70 organic dairy brands, over 90% of which received an excellent score. “No matter where consumers are located in the country they have the option of buying healthy and wonderful organic dairy products from farmers and companies who share their values,” Kastel added.
“Small and medium-size family organic dairy farms around the country have lobbied hard, for a number of years, for the USDA to step in and shutdown the large industrial dairies that are exploiting the reputation for quality that we have earned with consumers,” said Arden Landis, who milks 100 cows in Kirkwood, PA. “The reason our customers have made this a growing industry is they trust in us and the integrity of the organic label. We don’t plan on letting them down!”
Photos of some of the country’s more typical, exemplary organic dairy farms can be seen at: https://www.cornucopia.org/horizon-factory-farm-photo-gallery/ecologically-managed-organic-farm-gallery/
MORE: It should be noted that the legal complaint The Cornucopia Institute filed with the USDA in February, 2005 was dismissed, without any investigation, for political reasons (substantiated by FOIA documents that we are more than willing to share with the media). If they had pursued a judicious investigation this farm would have likely been shut down much earlier.
These allegations were widely known yet the USDA and QAI allowed this farm to continue to operate while Dean Foods/Horizon and Stremicks (Heritage-Foods), another organic dairy marketer located in Santa Ana, California, continued to purchase milk from this suspect operation.
The USDA continues to investigate other allegations of serious improprieties on dairies operated by Dean Foods and Aurora. Some of these open investigations, also filed by The Cornucopia Institute, are now nearly two years old.
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” Kastel said. “Organic consumers and ethical farmers that are forced to compete against these faux organic farms deserve better from our federal regulators. We hope that this enforcement action brought about by QAI is a harbinger of a more aggressive posture by the privately held certifier, the largest in the country.”
QAI is referred to by some in the industry as the “corporate certifier of convenience.”
For more information, contact Mark Kastel at 608-625-2000.