Watchdog: Organic Community “Taking the Law into Its Own Hands”

CORNUCOPIA, WI: Announcing the filing of additional legal complaints with the USDA, and threatening civil litigation, the nation’s most aggressive organic watchdog, The Cornucopia Institute, blasted the USDA for not penalizing the industry’s largest organic milk producer after government regulators found that they have perpetrated consumer fraud by violating the federal organic labeling law.

On August 29, the USDA announced that Colorado-based Aurora Organic Dairy had willfully violated 14 provisions of the regulations of Organic Food Production Act. Aurora operates a dairy processing facility in Colorado and five giant factory-farms in Texas and Colorado. The USDA investigation began after the agency was alerted to organic irregularities at Aurora’s over two years ago.

“This giant agribusiness enterprise, with majority ownership by Charlesbank, the investment arm of the Harvard endowment fund, was found to have illegally confined their cattle to feedlots, depriving them of fresh air and healthy grazing conditions as required by law,” said Mark A. Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst for the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute. In addition Kastel stated, “Aurora was also found to have brought in conventional cattle to their operation instead of milking cows that had been managed organically for their entire lives. This corporation was out and out cheating.”

The fact that the founders and managers of Aurora had been some of the most successful entrepreneurs in the industry, having also founded Horizon Organic Dairy prior to its purchase by Dean Foods, has left many in the industry resentful of what they call a “sweetheart deal” between the USDA and the giant dairy operator.

“Anyone found to be committing willful violations of the regulations, anyone, should not remain certified,” affirmed Jim Riddle former chairman of the National Organic Standards Board and a recognized international authority on organic certification. Family-scale farmers from all over the country have questioned on Internet forums whether they would have been allowed one year of supervision instead of being fined and having their organic certification revoked, after being found to have willfully violated the law.

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.

The USDA launched their investigation based on a formal legal complaint over Aurora’s management practices filed by The Cornucopia Institute in November 2005. Cornucopia had first alerted the Agency of Aurora’s irregularities with a legal complaint in January 2005, but the USDA closed the case without conducting any investigation, for what Cornucopia describes as “political reasons” revealed in documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the watchdog group.

This week the nonprofit farm policy research group filed an additional legal complaint alleging that a newer 4000-4200 head dairy that Aurora has brought into production, which the company describes as a “pioneering green-fields model for organic dairies,” was also skirting the law. (Click here to view a photo gallery of the Aurora factory-farm.)

“Our initial investigations, including photography, satellite imagery, and interviews with dairy industry professionals who visited the facility, indicate that this giant farm is also not grazing their cattle or providing pasture in accordance with federal law,” stated Will Fantle, research director at Cornucopia. “Although they have more pasture, the number of cows per acre does not meet legal precedents, and the quality of the pasture, grown in the semiarid conditions of Colorado, also does not meet legal definitions, this corporation is continuing to “game the system” and needs to be brought to justice.”

Cornucopia also announced the filing of a legal complaint against the two USDA accredited certifiers associated with Aurora. The complaint alleges that the illegal activities identified by the USDA at Aurora were overt and should have been uncovered by the certifiers, Quality Assurance International (QAI) and the state of Colorado’s organic program, if they had been fulfilling their oversight responsibilities.

Cornucopia also asked the USDA to sanction the two certifiers for consulting with and helping Aurora with damage-control and the public relations fallout after the USDA enforcement action was issued August 29. Representatives speaking for the two certifiers continued to praise Aurora for their organic management practices in the company’s August 29 news release and failed to mention their own negligence in Aurora’s organic fraud.

“It is incumbent upon organic certification officials to maintain the highest level of impartiality and to protect their organizations from conflict of interest. QAI and the state of Colorado have failed miserably in meeting this mandate,” Fantle stated.

In addition to the new legal complaints, Cornucopia is conferring with a team of lawyers about a potential civil action on behalf of farmers and other processors that 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 farmers started to see the price of their milk drop, and some have been shut out of the marketplace.

“The majority of all organic farmers in this country, and the brands that we sell our milk to, truly believe in the ethics that are the foundation of our industry,” said Steve Pechacek an organic farmer from Mondovi, Wisconsin, and immediate past president of the Midwest Organic Dairy Producers Association. “We cannot allow greed and the inaction of the USDA to tarnish the reputation of organic products,” Pechacek added. “We sincerely hope that the USDA will act on the new Cornucopia complaints, and if the executive branch won’t, we will seek justice in the courts.”

Cornucopia has consistently emphasized that the vast majority of dairy brands in the marketplace are from highly ethical companies. Cornucopia maintains a listing and scorecard so that consumers can identify brands whose milk comes from ethical family farmers who maintain high environmental standards and practice humane animal husbandry.

Stay Engaged

Sign up for The Cornucopia Institute’s eNews and action alerts to stay informed about organic food and farm issues.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.