USDA Enforcement Hammer Falls on Nation’s Largest Organic Factory Dairy

August 30th, 2007

USDA Requiring Aurora Organics to Reduce Dairy Herd Size and Remove Organic Label from Some Milk

At 7:20 p.m. EST, August 29, the USDA issued an emergency news release announcing that they had sent a Letter of Revocation to the Aurora Organic Dairy. In lieu of revoking Aurora’s organic certification, the Agency has instead entered into a consent agreement requiring the nation’s largest certified organic dairy to make substantial and wide-ranging changes to the livestock management practices at their operations in Texas and Colorado. (A copy of USDA’s news release is copied in full below.)

If the terms of the agreement are not met, USDA officials warn Aurora’s management that the agreement they have reached “will be withdrawn” and the Agency may “revoke the organic certification” for Aurora’s Platteville, Colo. dairy processing plant that packages private label milk for several national chains, including Wal-Mart, Costco, Target, and Safeway. The USDA also warns Aurora’s officials that their operations “will be closely monitored for compliance with the provisions of the agreement.” Although Aurora is the largest private-label organic milk supplier in the United States they also market milk under their own label, High Meadows.

Additionally, Aurora has agreed not to renew the organic certification for its Woodward, Colo. facility.

Earlier on Wednesday, August 29, management at Aurora sought to preempt the USDA announcement by issuing their own crass public relations spin on the matter. Aurora asserted that the formal legal complaints Cornucopia filed with USDA against Aurora in 2005 and 2006 were dismissed. The complaints were not dismissed. In fact, Wednesday evening Cornucopia’s Mark Kastel received a call from a high-ranking USDA official to say that the Agency had specifically rushed their official news release on the events out to the public in an effort to dispel the misinformation caused by Aurora’s factually erroneous representations.

Although we should be proud at The Cornucopia Institute that our meticulous research and well documented legal complaints have resulted in this action, and the previously announced decertification of the 10,000-head Vander Eyk dairy in California, we are still not wholly satisfied with the outcome and enforcement action taken by the USDA.

After years of delay Aurora, having expanded to five industrial scale dairies in Colorado and Texas, is still being allowed to remain in business despite being found guilty of multiple violations of organic law. These were not accidental violations — they were willful and premeditated violations of the law by a multimillion dollar business enterprise, the largest organic dairy producer in the United States.

All of the allegations that we outlined in our legal complaints are delineated in this consent agreement. The investigators at AMS compliance have obviously done their jobs well and are to be commended for their diligence. But it is the political appointees at USDA that have decided to let Aurora off somewhat easy in this matter. This is exactly what we warned about in our news release of August 14.

Major points that were detailed in the original Cornucopia legal complaints and that are also addressed in the consent agreement include:

    Aurora was not allowing their animals access to pasture
    Aurora brought in animals to their herd from a contract heifer ranch that was not certified organic
    Aurora converted animals from conventional to organic production when the regulations (because of their initial 80/20 conversion) prohibited that practice
    Aurora purchased organic feed for their Texas operation from a friend of the dairy manager who had sprayed his crops with herbicides during transition

During all of this time, Aurora was building market share, helping drive the price down for “real” organic farmers, and being a driving force behind the current surplus in the organic dairy market. They were defrauding consumers by selling milk that did not qualify to be labeled as organic.

The USDA chose not to levy any fines and Aurora is being allowed to remain in business.

It must be noted that – 205.100(c)(1) of the organic regulations states that “any operation that knowingly sells or labels a product as organic, except in accordance with the Act, shall be subject to a civil penalty of not more than $10,000 per violation.

This is only a partial victory in protecting the economic interests of the family scale dairy farmers we work for.

Stay tuned. We will aggressively be telling consumers, and the wholesale buyers that have been buying milk from Aurora, that they have been scammed by charlatans. Hopefully ethical businesses will discontinue their relationship with Aurora and we will see the surplus eaten away by new demand for “real” organic milk.

And now, a personal word from Mark Kastel:

I want to thank the staff of The Cornucopia Institute for their hard work over the years in pursuing our complaints against Vander Eyk, Aurora and Dean Foods/Horizon (the only factory-farm dairy operator, profiled in our complaints, that has yet to be adjudicated by the USDA). I particularly want to thank our research director, Will Fantle who is responsible for crafting our legal complaints and our legal counsel, Gary Cox, who has helped review documents and spearheaded our lawsuit against the USDA for release of related documents they had illegally withheld from the public.

I especially want to thank the many members of The Cornucopia Institute who had confidence in our work and have financially underwritten the expenses related to this campaign. It is an honor to work for the organic farmers of this country who I have so much respect and admiration for.

Mark, of course, was directly responsible for much of the onsite investigations and analysis of the farming operations and deserves huge thanks for his persistence and dedication to Cornucopia’s mission.

We will be releasing more news and analysis when it becomes available. A photo gallery of Aurora’s factory-farms can be seen here.

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What follows is the text of the news release issued by USDA on this matter.

Billy Cox (202) 720-8998
Angela Harless (202) 720-4623

AURORA ORGANIC DAIRY SIGNS CONSENT AGREEMENT WITH USDA’s AGRICULTURAL MARKETING SERVICE

WASHINGTON, Aug. 29, 2007 — The USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) has entered into a consent agreement with Aurora Organic Dairy (Aurora) in response to a Notice of Proposed Revocation issued earlier this year alleging violations of National Organic Program (NOP) regulations. Under the consent agreement, Aurora’s Platteville, Colo., facility must meet several conditions in order to continue to operate as a certified organic dairy operation. These conditions include removing certain animals from the organic herd and ceasing to apply the organic label to certain milk. Additionally, AMS will exercise increased scrutiny over Aurora’s operations during a one-year probationary review period. If Aurora does not abide by the agreement during that time, AMS may withdraw from the agreement and could revoke the organic certification for Aurora’s Platteville, Colo., plant.

“The organic industry is booming and the National Organic Program is a high priority for USDA,” said Bruce I. Knight, under secretary for marketing and regulatory programs, “and through this consent agreement consumers can be assured that milk labeled as organic in the supermarket is indeed organic.”

Under terms of the consent agreement Aurora also must file new organic systems plans for its Platteville, Colo., and Dublin, TX, facilities. These new plans will address all of the inconsistencies between its operations and the NOP regulations identified in the Notice of Proposed Revocation.

Major adjustments required at Aurora’s Platteville, Colo., facility include:

      1) providing daily access to pasture during the growing season,

 

      acknowledging that lactation is not a reason to deny access to pasture;

 

      2) reducing the number of cows to a level consistent with available pasture with agreed maximum stocking densities;

 

      3) eliminating improperly transitioned cows from its herd and not marketing those cows’ milk as organic; and

 

    4) agreeing to use the more stringent transition process in the NOP regulations for animals added to its dairy herd.

Aurora also agreed not to renew the organic certification for its Woodward, Colo., facility. Additionally, Aurora agreed to enter into written agreements with suppliers of animals for its Dublin, Texas facility that verify the certification of those suppliers and the proper transitioning to the organic status of those animals.

AMS initiated its investigation of Aurora based upon a complaint alleging insufficient pasture for its animals. In investigating this complaint, AMS investigators also uncovered the improper transitioning of animals and a failure to maintain adequate records.

Aurora’s Platteville, Colo. and Dublin, Texas plants will be closely monitored for compliance with the provisions of the agreement. If AMS finds the terms of the consent agreement are not being met, then the agreement will be withdrawn and AMS could revoke the organic certification for Aurora’s Platteville, Colo., plant.

As a result of the investigation, Aurora’s certifying agent, the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA), agreed earlier this year to make several changes in its operation, including attending increased NOP training and hiring additional personnel.

Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990. The OFPA required the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop national standards for organically produced agricultural products to assure consumers that agricultural products marketed as organic meet consistent, uniform standards. The OFPA and the National Organic Program (NOP) regulations require that agricultural products labeled as organic originate from farms or handling operations certified by a State or private entity that has been accredited by USDA.

The NOP is a marketing program housed within the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. Neither the OFPA nor the NOP regulations address food safety or nutrition. Additional information about this program is available on the National Organic Program Web site at www.ams.usda.gov/nop.

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