America’s Largest Corporate Dairy Processor Muscles Its Way into Organics

May 12th, 2008

Clout-Heavy Dean Foods Kills USDA Investigation of Their Horizon Label

The Cornucopia Institute

CORNUCOPIA, WI: After a three-and-a-half year battle with Dean Foods regarding the legality of milk it labels as Horizon Organic, the country’s most aggressive organic industry watchdog filed additional legal actions today. Dean, the nation’s largest dairy processor, with nearly $12 billion in sales and controlling 50 different milk brands, has obtained a large percentage of its organic milk supply from giant factory farms milking thousands of cows each.

The Cornucopia Institute has filed a formal legal complaint with the USDA claiming that one of Dean’s Horizon suppliers, a dairy in Snelling, California, was skirting the law by confining the majority of their cows to a filthy feedlot rather than allowing them fresh grass and access to pasture as the federal organic regulations require.

Cornucopia has also asked the Inspector General at the USDA to investigate appearances of favoritism at the agency that has benefitted Dean Foods. Cornucopia charges that past enforcement of the Organic Foods Production Act, the law governing organic food labeling and production, has been unequally applied toward major corporate agribusiness by the USDA.

“We are asking the USDA, once again, to investigate serious alleged improprieties at dairies that produce Horizon organic milk,” said Mark A. Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst with the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute.

Besides the legal issues that Cornucopia raised, they suggest Dean Foods has seriously injured the value of its Horizon label and the reputation of organic milk. “In the eyes of consumers, factory farms–with questions about humane animal husbandry and records of endemic pollution–do not meet the ethical litmus test,” Kastel added.

Cornucopia’s most recent complaint is the third filed with the USDA alleging Dean Foods has broken the federal law that governs organic production. Prior complaints also charged Dean was confining cattle on their two corporate-owned dairies, managing as many as 8000 head of cattle each.

Although the USDA, based on Cornucopia research, sanctioned or decertified two independent factory farms supplying Horizon, the federal agency dismissed both legal complaints against Dean Foods itself. According to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by Cornucopia, the USDA never investigated or even visited Dean’s largest corporate-owned industrial dairy, in the desert-like conditions of central Idaho.

“It appears that Dean Foods has more political clout in Washington than the two independent factory farm operators that were found to have been abusing the trust of organic consumers,” according to Will Fantle, Research Director at Cornucopia.

According to FOIA documents, Dean Foods hired lawyers at Covington and Burling, one of the capital’s most powerful and influential legal and lobbying groups, to plead their case. “The USDA closed complaints we filed in 2005 and 2006 without ever having visited the Horizon dairy in Idaho, and warned Dean Foods in advance before inspecting their Maryland farm,” stated Fantle.

In a letter to USDA Inspector General Phyllis K. Fong, Cornucopia asked her to investigate why the agency arbitrarily chose to adjudicate some of the formal legal complaints filed by Cornucopia but looked the other way when it came to the largest corporate dairy processor and marketer in the country for almost identical alleged offenses.

Cornucopia’s letter stated, “Conditions on the 8000-head factory farm operated by Dean/Horizon in Idaho were very similar to the factory farms that the USDA has already sanctioned. The only discernible difference appears to be how much money Dean Foods has spent on lobbyists and campaign contributions in Washington.”

The Cornucopia Institute’s latest complaint against the Fagundes dairy in California calls into question Dean Foods’ marketing claim that “80% of our milk comes from family farmers.”

Images from the Fagundes Bros. Dairy can be viewed here

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“We have been challenging Dean Foods’ greenwashing of their Horizon label for a number of years now,” stated Kastel. One of Horizon’s decertified suppliers, milking 10,000 cows, in a feedlot in Pixley, California, was categorized as a “family farm” by Dean.

“My family and 1800 or so other organic farmers around the country have worked hard to build the stellar reputation organic dairy products deservingly enjoy in the eyes of consumers,” lamented Tony Azevedo, one of the first organic dairy farmers in California milking 350 cows near the town of Stevinson. “Virtually every other name-brand organic dairy product in the country depends exclusively on real family farmers to produce their milk. We don’t want subterfuge by confinement dairies giving us all a black eye and endangering our livelihoods.”

“Ninety percent of all participants in the marketplace are approaching organic dairy production ethically,” emphasized Cornucopia’s Kastel. A comprehensive report and scorecard, listing organic brand-name and private-label organic dairy products, can be found on The Cornucopia Institute website: http://cornucopia.org/index.php/dairy_brand_ratings/

In addition to filing a formal legal complaint against Fagundes dairy with regulators at the USDA, Cornucopia also sent the complaint to the California Department of Agriculture that also oversees organic production in the state.

Although past complaints regarding the integrity of organic production have sometimes taken months or even years to adjudicate at the state and federal levels Cornucopia’s concerns elicited a response in less than 24 hours from the dairy’s organic certifier, CCOF, based in Santa Cruz, California.

In a letter to Cornucopia, CCOF said, “Please note that CCOF takes organic livestock living conditions extremely seriously.” They added, “We will immediately initiate a full investigation which will include an on-site inspection of the operation.”

Organic certifiers are on the front lines of efforts to protect consumers and ethical farmers from fraud. “The immediate and serious tone from CCOF should not be surprising as the certifier has been one of the most highly respected organizations in the organic movement since its founding in the early 1970s,” said Fantle.

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