BASSETT, NE: What has been dubbed the "largest scandal in the history of the organic industry" has apparently taken another victim. The USDA announced this week that Promiseland Livestock, LLC, a 22,000-head cattle producer, had "willfully" violated the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, the law that federally regulates the industry.
Promiseland, and its principal owner Anthony J. Zeman, were found by the USDA to have failed to keep adequate records, the backbone of organic certification, to confirm that all their cattle were managed organically. Promiseland management also refused on multiple occasions to openly share records with the USDA and prevented the agency officials from carrying out an unannounced inspection at Promiseland's facilities.
"It's about time the USDA started taking action against scofflaws like Zeman who have abused the trust of the organic consumer and put the livelihoods of ethical family-scale farmers at risk," said Mark Kastel Codirector of The Cornucopia Institute, an organic industry watchdog. The Institute, based in Cornucopia, Wisconsin, has filed a series of legal complaints against giant industrial dairies, milking as many as 2000-10,000 cows, and representing their milk as organic.
The investigation, and current attempt by the USDA to strip Promiseland's certification, is a direct result of Cornucopia's investigative work targeting Aurora Dairy the nation's largest supplier of private-label organic milk and supplier to Wal-Mart, Target, Costco, and other major retailers.
Aurora was found by USDA's investigators to have been confining cattle to giant feedlots instead of grazing as law requires and also had been bringing in conventional cattle that didn't qualify as organic. That's what led federal investigators to Promiseland, with facilities in Missouri and Nebraska, the largest supplier of organic dairy replacement animals in the country.
"Real organic dairy farms don't need to buy replacement heifers," Kastel firmly stated. Large industrial-scale dairy operations push cattle for high levels of production and sometimes slaughter cattle after they have been producing milk for only a year or two, due to stress-induced health problems. This approach demands a steady stream of replacement animals into their milking herd.
"Some of my cows are well over a dozen years old. They have names not numbers," said Barb Buchmayer of Purdin, MO, a certified organic dairy producer milking 45 cows. Cornucopia contends that farmers like Ms. Buchmayer are placed at a competitive disadvantage because of the flood of bogus organic milk coming from factory farm operators like Aurora and Horizon (the industry-leader Dean Foods' organic milk label).
"Unscrupulous cattle suppliers like Promiseland are the crutch that have made these factory farm operations possible," added Kastel. In the worst case of abusing consumer trust, Cornucopia has cited Dean Foods' corporate-owned, 8000-head factory dairy in Idaho. For years they exploited organic rules by selling off all of their baby calves and replacing them with conventional heifers purchased from outfits like Promiseland.
"While I raise my calves with loving care, feeding them organic milk, the same quality of milk you would find in a grocery store, Aurora and Dean/Horizon were cutting corners by purchasing cattle that had been shot up with antibiotics and fed artificial milk replacer and genetically modified feed," lamented Buchmayer. "This is just patently unfair!"
"We are used to odors in the dairy business, but the way this scandal has been handled by the USDA really stinks," Kastel said. The USDA was criticized last fall when Bush administration officials overruled career civil servants in the Aurora controversy. Instead of decertifying Aurora Dairy, as officials at the National Organic Program recommended, they allowed the corporation to continue to operate under a one-year probation.
Promiseland was able to override the recommendations of USDA staff, once again, when political appointees changed the giant livestock producer's proposed revocation into a two-year suspension.
Freedom of Information Act documents obtained by Cornucopia indicate that the same lawyer that has represented Dean Foods and Aurora also negotiated on behalf of Promiseland.
"When you start connecting the dots, there are common threads in the scandal," Kastel asserted. "Aurora Dairy has supplied Dean Foods with milk for their Horizon brand, Promiseland is the leading supplier of cattle for organic factory farms, Covington and Burling, the powerful Washington lobbying and legal firm, has represented them all, and they have all been certified by Quality Assurance International (QAI) acting as an agent for the USDA.
"Calling an operation with 22,000 head of cattle 'organic' is a joke," said Kastel. "We describe QAI as the 'corporate certifier of convenience.' Along with the USDA they are failing to fulfill their responsibilities designated by Congress and, more importantly, failing farmers and consumers."
In terms of the industry, although they are disproportionately large, Aurora and Dean Foods are said to be rare bad aberrations. Independent analysis of the 1800 or so family farmers that produce organic milk, and their marketing partners, indicates an overwhelming adherence to the principles governing organic production.
"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 web site: http://www.cornucopia.org/
"We do not buy any replacement heifers. In fact we are about to sell 40 heifers. Our cows are so healthy and live such long lives that we have extra heifers each year," added Buchmayer.
More information on the enforcement actions against Aurora and Dean Foods can be found in "Cornucopia News" at http://www.cornucopia.org/ .
Cornucopia also provides a scorecard ranking major organic dairy brands; 90% were deemed as meeting the highest ethical standards. That should be reassuring to consumers.
A link to the USDA's news release and documents on the Promiseland enforcement action can be found here
Contact: Mark Kastel, 608-625-2042