Secret USDA Enforcement Action Revealed
CORNUCOPIA, WI: In a startling revelation The Cornucopia Institute is making public a new document indicating that not only did the USDA find that the nation’s largest organic factory-farm dairy operator “willfully” violate the federal organic standards, but that one of its certifiers, the Colorado Department of Agriculture, had, also, “willfully” failed to legally perform their oversight responsibilities under the federal regulations.
In a letter dated April 16, 2007, Mark Bradley, Director of the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), notified Colorado of a formal Notice of Proposed Suspension of its accreditation as a certifying agent for organic livestock.
USDA investigations of both Aurora Organic Dairy, operating factory farms in Texas and Colorado, and their certifiers, were prompted by a formal legal complaint filed by The Cornucopia Institute in 2005. The USDA confirmed Cornucopia’s allegations that the giant industrial-scale dairies, milking thousands of cows each, were not providing their cattle with pasture, as required by law, had illegally brought conventional cattle into their operations, and a committed a number of other serious improprieties.
Aurora is the leading private-label organic milk processor supplying store brands for Wal-Mart, Target, Costco, Wild Oats, Safeway, and many other grocery chains.
In the document secured by Cornucopia, a response from the State of Colorado’s Department of Agriculture to the USDA, dated May 22, 2007, the agency vigorously disputes the findings by the Federal regulators of “65 separate allegations of willful violations of NOP rules.”
Colorado’s “Statement of Position” to the USDA explicitly states that the document is “solely for the purpose of facilitating settlement discussions at the invitation of the AMS (Agricultural Marketing Services).”
“At the invitation of the AMS! It appears that the certifier, just like the giant corporate farming operation that was determined to have been defrauding consumers by selling milk labeled as organic illegally, received “sweetheart” deals from the USDA – being allowed to continue to operate and avoid fines,” stated Mark Kastel Senior Farm Policy Analyst at the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute.
“The appearance of sweetheart deals, and the double standard that represents, could jeopardize the integrity of the organic certification process just as much as if they had not carried out any enforcement at all,” said Dave Engel, an organic dairy farmer from Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, and long-time participant in the development of the National Organic Program.
Ironically, The Cornucopia Institute discovered the secret deal between the USDA and the certifier just a week after filing formal legal complaints against the State of Colorado and Quality Assurance International (QAI), the certifiers of Aurora’s farms in Texas and Colorado. Both certifying agencies vigorously disputed Cornucopia’s allegations.
The complaints accused Colorado and QAI of not only failing to fulfill their legal oversight and inspection responsibilities, but also consulting with and participating in an Aurora damage-control public relations campaign. The federal organic standards prohibit certifiers from engaging in activities that could be construed as conflicts of interest and from issuing false information to the USDA and the public.
“What is most disturbing about this discovery is the pattern of secrecy in terms of regulatory enforcement at the USDA’s organic program,” said Kastel. “We surmise that this unfortunate behavior is emanating from “upstairs” at the Department – political appointees, rather than NOP personnel who, although severely understaffed, by every appearance seem to be dedicated to the mission.”
Earlier this year the largest industrial dairy in the country, the Vander Eyk Dairy in Pixley, California, which has supplied milk to the Horizon and Stremicks brands, was decertified. Like the enforcement action with the State of Colorado, decertification was kept a secret and revealed only later, through leaks to The Cornucopia Institute.
“This is outrageous. The public did not find out about the decertification of the 10,000-cow Vander Eyk Dairy, masquerading as organic, from QAI, its certifier, or from the USDA. It came from an organic industry watchdog that clandestinely uncovered the matter. This is wrong,” emphatically stated Kastel.
“One of the reasons that Congress gave the USDA enforcement powers, and the ability to suspend or revoke certification and accreditation of certifiers, in addition to levying significant fines, is both to purge fraudulent organic products from the market place and to act as a deterrent for other would-be violators,” stated Engel.
Cornucopia said last week that in addition to the new legal complaints against the certifying agencies, it is conferring with a team of lawyers about a potential civil action on behalf of farmers and other processors who have been economically injured by a flood of surplus milk, much of which has come from illegal Aurora facilities. In the third quarter of 2007 organic family farmers started to see the price of their milk drop, and some have been shut out of the marketplace.
“Over 90% of organic dairy name-brands on the market are from highly ethical companies exclusively supplied by family-scale farmers,” said Kastel. “These giant corporate dairies are a horrible aberration.” Cornucopia maintains a listing and scorecard on their web site, www.cornucopia.org, so that consumers can identify brands whose milk comes from ethical family farmers who maintain high environmental standards and practice humane animal husbandry.
A PDF copy of the 71 page document from the state of Colorado to the USDA is available on request from Cornucopia. Email us at [email protected]
A copy of the formal complaint filed with USDA by The Cornucopia Institute concerning the conduct of the organic certification agents involved with Aurora can be viewed at www.cornucopia.org/Aurora/CertifierComplaint.pdf.