USDA should demand retroactive payment from faux organic milk producers

Cornucopia, WI “The Cornucopia Institute has sent a formal request to the Chief of the USDA’s Dairy Promotion and Research Program, requesting that the program collect almost three years’ worth of unpaid dairy promotion “check-off” assessments from the Colorado-based Aurora Dairy.

Since February 2005, the USDA has exempted organic dairy producers from paying the 15 cents per hundredweight assessment that it requires of all conventional dairy producers. Aurora initially claimed the organic exemption, but following a comprehensive investigation of improprieties, the USDA’s national organic program found that its milk did not qualify as organic.

The exemption rule states that a producer must not only be certified organic, but must also “handle or market only products that are eligible for a 100 percent organic product label under the NOP as described in 7 CFR part 205.”

The investigation by the Agricultural Marketing Services Compliance and the National Organic Program concluded that Aurora Dairy “sold, labeled and represented milk as organically produced, when such milk was not produced and handled in accordance with the National Organic Program” regulations as described in 7 CFR part 205 from December 5, 2003, until April 16, 2007.

“The rules leave no room for doubt: if you don’t produce milk that meets the legal requirement to be certified as organic, you cannot claim to be exempt as an organic producer,” said Mark Kastel, codirector of The Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy group based in Wisconsin. “Aurora has already profited by charging organic consumers an unjustifiable price premium for milk that was not produced organically. Now it appears that they have also profited by claiming an exemption from the check-off program that was not their legal right to take. We are asking the USDA to rectify this situation,” Kastel added.

Cornucopia has asked that the USDA calculate the exact amount that Aurora Organic Dairy owes the Dairy Promotion and Research Program, and be charged retroactively for these unpaid assessments. It is likely that if the USDA concurs with Cornucopia’s conclusion, Aurora will be forced to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in money now in arrears.

“Under USDA rules and most consumers” perceptions, dairy products are either organic or not, it is a case of black or white ” there are no shades of gray,” said Pete Hardin, the editor/publisher of The Milkweed, a monthly milk marketing report. “If Aurora was in multiple violation of USDA rules, then in my opinion these products were not organic and Aurora should forfeit its exemption from paying the dairy promotion check-off.”

Aurora, which operates five industrial-scale dairies in Colorado and Texas, was found by federal regulators to have “willfully” violated at least 14 provisions of the organic regulations. “Organic dairy farmers and consumers around the country were incensed that the serious violations went unpunished by the USDA,” Kastel added. This month, at least six class-action lawsuits around the country were filed claiming consumer fraud by Aurora.

The Aurora Dairy is the largest processor of organic private-label milk in the country and supplies approximately 20 grocery chains including Wal-Mart, Costco, Target, Wild Oats, and Safeway.

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