Industry watchdog calls for removal of organic program manager
Based on a scathing front-page exposé in The Washington Post presenting strong evidence that the largest organic milk producer in the United States has been operating illegally, the organic industry’s most aggressive industry watchdog, The Cornucopia Institute, filed formal legal complaints against Aurora Dairy and their organic certifier, the Colorado Department of Agriculture. The nonprofit simultaneously wrote to the Trump administration’s new USDA Secretary, Sonny Perdue, asking for the removal of the agency’s lead organic regulator.
This is not the first legal complaint Cornucopia has filed against Aurora. More than a decade ago, based on the organization’s research, USDA investigators had found that Aurora was “willfully” violating 14 tenets of the organic law. Although career civil servants recommended Aurora be banned from organic commerce, Aurora’s lawyers negotiated a favorable settlement that included a one-year probation and modifying practices at some of their livestock factories.
“The rigorous investigative work by Peter Whoriskey at The Washington Post clearly illustrates a pattern of long-term corruption by both Aurora Dairy and the USDA’s National Organic Program. Our organic regulators have turned a blind eye as giant industrial operations place ethical family-scale dairy farmers at a distinct competitive disadvantage,” stated Mark A. Kastel, Cornucopia’s codirector.
The flood of allegedly illegal organic milk has finally caught up to the aggressive growth in the organic marketplace. In the past few months, organic milk processors have started cutting the price paid to farmers, placing some on quotas.
“Obviously, at a time of surplus, the Washington Post article has the potential to damage the confidence of organic consumers paying a premium for milk and getting ripped off when they purchase products that are sourced from Aurora,” Kastel added.
Aurora Dairy is the largest supplier of “private label,” or store-brand, organic milk in the U.S., supplying such retail giants as Walmart, Costco, Target, and major supermarket chains for their own proprietary brands.
What Whoriskey and his Washington Post colleagues found when they visited the largest Aurora dairy complex in Weld County, Colorado, was a giant feedlot where almost all of the 15,000 cows were confined to dirt and manure-covered pens rather than being out on pasture as the organic law requires.
Through repeated visits over eight days (some up to 10 hours long), and drone and satellite imagery, reporters found no more than 10% of the cattle out on grass — and many times, significantly less.
When visiting in October, prior to the first frost on the 20th, all cows were confined. Aurora claimed that their Organic Systems Plan, approved by their certifier, the Colorado Department of Agriculture, ended their grazing on September 30 even though the federal law clearly states that cows must have access to pasture during the entire grazing season.
Cornucopia has long alleged that giant industrial dairies are systemically “gaming the system,” confining cattle in order to push cows for high milk production, similar to standard operating practices on conventional CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations).
“These gross violations of the law were well-documented in a series of complaints we filed against Aurora operations in Texas, and other ‘organic’ CAFOs in the U.S., as well as their certifiers, that have languished at the USDA for over a year and a half without enforcement action,” stated Cornucopia’s Kastel.
At the time of Cornucopia’s complaints, USDA officials referred to the photographic evidence showing no cows on pasture as “a single moment in time.” However, Cornucopia stressed that the flyover photographs were taken on randomly selected times and dates, unlike the USDA-sanctioned annual organic inspections that are made by appointment. The watchdog’s aerial photographic findings, backed up by satellite imagery, were universally consistent — few if any animals were out on pasture on 14 industrial-scale, certified organic livestock operations.
“With the impressive investment The Washington Post made in their investigation, the USDA can’t claim a single point in time. Investigators were at Aurora’s largest dairy on at least eight separate days,” Kastel added.
To back up its findings, the Post contracted with Virginia Tech to test and compare the profile of fatty acids in Aurora’s milk to that of other organic and conventional brands. The tests reveal that the nutritional composition of Aurora’s milk is more like conventional milk, where cows are raised in confinement as a standard practice, than other certified organic milk where cows are regularly out on pasture.
“My milk price has been cut and is likely going to be cut again,” said James Goodman, a longtime organic dairy farmer from Wonewoc, Wisconsin, milking 40 cows, or about 2/10 of 1% of what Aurora milks on the largest of their six dairies. “We have lost about 30% of our income in the past year due to this glut of so-called ‘organic’ milk flooding the market. My family has been able to make a decent living farming the right way, and following the rules USDA has in place, but everyone should have to follow the rules, Aurora included. I think it’s time for USDA to put an end to this unfair and illegal competition.”
Goodman isn’t the only longtime dairy farmer feeling the squeeze. John Boere, who milks approximately 400 cows in Modesto, California, could not find a wholesale market for his organic milk and just switched his herd back to conventional feed in April.
“The surplus of milk is so bad here in California that some organic handlers are being forced to divert organic milk onto the conventional market, at a substantial loss. This contributes to the crumbling farm-gate pricing, and for some, like me, being forced out of organic altogether,” Boere said.
The former organic dairy farmer added, “If all organic dairies were forced to get 30% of their dry matter intake (feed) from pasture, as the law requires, there would be a shortage of organic milk, not a surplus!”
In order to empower consumers to make discerning marketplace decisions protecting their families while also economically rewarding ethical farms, Cornucopia maintains a scorecard of all organic dairy brands. “Shoppers can vote in the marketplace,” said Kastel. “There is a higher authority than the USDA, or even the federal courts, and that’s the consumer dollar.”
The Cornucopia Institute’s letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue calls for the removal of National Organic Program manager Miles McEvoy. McEvoy continues to lead the organic program while being investigated by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service for ethics complaints regarding allegedly improper relationships with certifiers he is overseeing. He has repeatedly refused to take enforcement action against illegal operations on certified organic livestock factories.
Cornucopia also filed a formal legal complaint against Aurora’s organic certifier, the Colorado Department of Agriculture, alleging gross negligence in failing to properly enforce organic regulations. The Washington Post found, among other irregularities, that they did not perform the required annual inspection at the Weld County Aurora facility until November, after the grazing season had been completed.
“The only reason we have been able to document some of these improprieties has been by successfully suing the USDA after McEvoy refused to release documents the public is entitled to under the Freedom of Information Act,” Kastel said. “The NOP has been involved in an illegal cover-up. The chickens have come home to roost, and the collateral damage is to ethical organic dairy farmers whose livelihoods are now endangered.”
View the startling four minute video on The Washington Post website.
This also is not the first time The Cornucopia Institute has filed a formal complaint against the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA). In the findings from Cornucopia’s initial Aurora complaint, filed in 2005, the USDA recommended that CDA be suspended from doing livestock certification because of its incompetency in regards to inspections of Aurora (where numerous violations were confirmed). After a vigorous protest from Colorado’s then-Secretary of Agriculture, the USDA backed down.
“I wish I could say that the concerns about Aurora and CDA were isolated,” Kastel added, “however, other major organic certifiers, including Quality Assurance International, CCOF, the Texas Department of Agriculture, and Oregon Tilth, are certifying giant ‘factory farms’ on which Cornucopia has collected both photographic and documentary evidence indicating serious violations of the law.”
As if there isn’t enough milk in the organic marketplace today, Aurora recently gained favorable tax abatements and subsidies in Columbia, Missouri, to build a major processing plant there. Estimates are that it will require an additional 30,000 cows for the new plant to operate.