By Liane Kufchock, Bloomberg
At least 15 lawsuits accusing Aurora Dairy Corp. and retailers of selling milk mislabeled as organic will be grouped together in a federal court in St. Louis, a panel of judges decided.
Target Corp., Costco Wholesale Corp., Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Safeway Inc., and Whole Foods Market Inc. are alleged to have sold milk produced by closely held Aurora that didn’t meet organic standards set by the United States Department of Agriculture.
The Judicial Panel of Multi-District Litigation decided Feb. 20 to assign all the litigation to Judge E. Richard Webber in the Eastern District of Missouri after lawyers argued last month over the appropriate court for the lawsuits.
“Given the geographic dispersal of the constituent actions and the potential tag-along actions, the Eastern District of Missouri offers a relatively convenient forum for this litigation,” the judges said in their ruling. The panel oversees case consolidations when a company is sued in different U.S. federal courts over the same product.
Aurora is based in Boulder, Colorado.
“We argued for the cases to be consolidated in Denver because we are based here, but the location has no bearing on the outcome of the case,” Aurora’s spokeswoman, Sonja Tuitele, said in a telephone interview.
The suits ask for damages and an injunction not to sell milk mislabeled as organic.
In order for dairy milk to get USDA organic certification, the cows must have access to pasture, their feed must be pesticide-free and they must not be given bovine-growth hormones or antibiotics, according to federal legislation enacted in 1990.
The plaintiffs say Aurora claimed its milk was organic after willfully violating federal certification requirements.
The USDA notified Aurora last April that the company was found to have violated the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, according to a letter from USDA National Organic Program Associate Deputy Administrator Mark A. Bradley.
The agency entered into a consent agreement with Aurora in August addressing inconsistencies in regulations between state and federal agencies.
Aurora agreed to make eight specific changes to its organic system plans and address all the issues raised by the agency, according to the consent agreement.
At the end of the one-year review period, Aurora must verify that it has made all the changes. The USDA may withdraw from the consent agreement if the terms of the agreement are not reasonably met.
“The cornerstone of our defense is the fact that the USDA has confirmed that our milk has been produced under continuous valid organic certifications,” Tuitele said. “That means our milk has been properly labeled with the USDA organic seal.”
Aurora’s violations were inconsistencies in interpretations of USDA regulations and not done willfully, she said.
Representatives for Target and Wal-Mart did not immediately return calls for comment.