Class Action Suits Seek Damages from Sale of Fraudulent Milk
ST. LOUIS, MO / DENVER, CO Acting on behalf of organic food consumers in 27 states, class action lawsuits are being filed in U.S. federal courts, in St. Louis and Denver, against the nation’s largest organic dairy. The suits charge Aurora Dairy Corporation, based in Boulder, Colorado, with allegations of consumer fraud, negligence, and unjust enrichment concerning the sale of organic milk by the company. This past April, Aurora officials received a notice from the USDA detailing multiple and “willful” violations of federal organic law that were found by federal investigators.
“This is the largest scandal in the history of the organic industry,” said Mark Kastel of The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based farm policy research group. Cornucopia’s 2005 formal legal complaint first alerted USDA investigators to the improprieties occurring at Aurora. “Aurora was taking advantage of the consumer’s good will in the marketplace toward organics, and the USDA has allowed this scofflaw-corporation to continue to operate,” Kastel added.
Law firms based in Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri have so far have filed one of the lawsuits in Missouri, with another suit, covering dozens of additional states where plaintiffs live, due to be filed in Denver tomorrow. The attorneys are seeking damages from Aurora to reimburse consumers harmed by the company’s actions and are requesting that the U.S. District Courts put an injunction in place to halt the ongoing sale of Aurora’s organic milk in the nation’s grocery stores until it can be demonstrated that the company is complying with federal organic regulations.
Aurora, with $100 million in annual sales, provides milk that is sold as organic and packaged as private label, store-brand products for some of the nation’s biggest chains, including Wal-Mart, Target, Costco, Safeway, Wild Oats, and about 20 others.
Independent investigators at the USDA concluded earlier this year that Aurora, with five dairy facilities in Colorado and Texas, each milking thousands of cows, had 14 “willful” violations of federal organic regulations. One of the most egregious of the findings was that from December 5, 2003, to April 16, 2007, the Aurora Dairy “labeled and represented milk as organically produced, when such milk was not produced and handled in accordance with the National Organic Program regulations.”
Cornucopia’s research, since confirmed by a two-year investigation by federal law enforcement agents, found that Aurora was confining their cows to pens and sheds in feedlots rather than grazing the animals as the federal law requires. Furthermore, Aurora brought conventional animals into their organic milking operation in a manner prohibited by the Organic Food Production Act, a law passed by Congress in 1990 and implemented in 2002 by the USDA.
“We believe that there are tens of thousands of consumers across the United States who have been directly impacted by Aurora’s practices,” said Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association. “We are pleased to see this legal action. We will do what we can to ensure that organic continues to mean organic and that consumers get exactly that when they are paying premium prices for organic food,” Cummins added.
“I feel cheated by Aurora’s organic misrepresentations,” said Sandie Regan, an organic consumer from Crown Point, Indiana, and one of the parties to the lawsuit. “I am willing to pay more at the grocery store for organic milk because I believe the milk is healthier for me. But it doesn’t look like I was getting what I paid for,” Regan added.
In addition to Missouri plaintiffs being represented by the St. Louis, Missouri-based law firm Simon Passanante, the larger multistate Denver suit is being handled by, attorneys from Lane, Alton, Horst in Columbus, Ohio, Wolf, Haldenstein, Adler, Freeman, and Herz in Chicago, Illinois, and Gray, Ritter, and Graham, also based in St. Louis.
“We encourage anyone who has purchased some of Aurora’s private-label products to contact OCA or Cornucopia, and we will help them obtain justice,” the Cornucopia’s Kastel added. Although not plaintiffs themselves, the two public-interest groups have supported the lawsuit through research and organizing. A list of the grocery chains supplied by Aurora, the nation’s largest private-label bottler, can be secured by contacting OCA or Cornucopia.
Cornucopia and OCA point out that Aurora is a “horrible aberration” and that the vast majority of all organic dairy products are produced with high integrity. In a scorecard published last year, and available on their web site, Cornucopia rates over 90% of organic name-brand dairy products as truly subscribing to the letter and spirit of the law.
“Aurora’s actions have injured the reputation of the more than 1500 legitimate organic dairy farmers who are faithfully following federal organic rules and regulations,” noted Kastel. “We cannot allow these families to be placed at a competitive disadvantage.”
Many industry observers feel that the USDA’s enforcement mechanism broke down in the Aurora case. After career USDA staff drafted a Letter of Proposed Revocation, seeking to prevent Aurora from engaging in organic commerce, political appointees at the agency intervened, crafting an agreement allowing Aurora to remain in business.
“It is unconscionable that the USDA allowed Aurora to continue, after making millions of dollars, in this “ethics-based” industry, when they had concluded that Aurora willfully violated the law,” Kastel added. “However, there is a higher authority in terms of organic integrity than the USDA – that’s the organic consumer. And they are about to make their voices heard through the courts.”
Copies of the lawsuits are available upon request.