This week an organic industry watchdog, The Cornucopia Institute, filed a formal legal complaint with the USDA in Washington alleging that one of the five industrial-scale dairies operated by Aurora, its High Plains dairy near Kersey, Colorado, is failing to graze their dairy cattle as required by the federal organic standards.
Family dairy farmers have recently appealed directly to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack for swift enforcement action in response to giant corporations "gaming the system" and squeezing them out of business. They claim they are being placed at a competitive disadvantage. A national surplus of organic milk - largely created by factory farm dairies - and magnified by a soft economy - has been driving down prices paid to farmers.
"Here we have an industry where 1800 family farmers, and the reputable organic brands they supply, are continuing to have their economic survival imperiled by this $100 million scofflaw that has been allowed to continue in operation," said Mark A. Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst for Cornucopia.
Aurora’s milk is sold to many of the nation’s largest grocery chains, including Wal-Mart, Target, Safeway, Costco and others, for their cheap store brand label organic milk.
Aurora is allegedly primarily confining their dairy cows in giant barns and pens instead of being allowed to graze on fresh forage, and exhibit their natural instinctive behaviors, as the federal law mandates. When the cows are let outside they often only have access to substandard crops that are planted on an annual basis, and wither in the desert-like heat, instead of more hardy perennials that stand up to continual grazing throughout the growing season.
In response to a previous legal complaint filed by The Cornucopia Institute, in 2006, career staff at the USDA found that Aurora was in violation of 14 tenets of the organic regulations including confining their cattle to feedlots, instead of grazing, and bringing thousands of illegal conventional cows into their organic operation.
"Although investigators found that Aurora had perpetrated the greatest scandal in the history of the organic industry, Bush administration officials, who ran the USDA at the time, let the giant corporation off with minor adjustments to one of their five operations and placed them on a one-year probation," Kastel added. In addition to being subject to decertification, the dairy could have faced millions of dollars in penalties.
Cornucopia had filed a subsequent complaint in 2007, outlining evidence that Aurora's High Plains dairy was violating the law. At that point the Bush administration, through the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Services, informed the farm policy research group that their concerns would be investigated and integrated into Aurora's one-year probation monitoring.
"After recently scrutinizing USDA documents, obtained through a freedom of information request (FOIA), we are refiling these serious charges now, including making additional first-hand witness testimony available, because there is no evidence that the Department followed through with their commitment to investigate what Aurora has represented as a model pasture-based dairy,” said Will Fantle, research director of The Cornucopia Institute.
The controversy surrounding the legality of operating giant factory farms, each milking 2000-7000 cows, principally owned by Aurora or Dean Foods for their Horizon brand, has come to a head this year as competitors in the marketplace have been forced to lower prices paid to family-scale farmers, institute cut backs on production or even cancel their contracts with some dairy producers.
"This is an unmitigated disaster for many family farmers who are now facing no market for their organic milk and possibly losing their farms because of the softening economy and the overload of milk coming from these giant factory farms," said Kathie Arnold of Truxton, NY, an organic dairy farmer milking 130 cows.
Meanwhile, USDA Secretary Vilsack recently met in Wisconsin with organic family farmers and their advocates who appealed to the new Obama administration to "cleanup the mess they inherited" at the USDA's National Organic Program.
Farmers were heartened by the Secretary’s commitment to ramp-up enforcement at the National Organic Program and appoint officials there who will share the values of organic community participants. “We are focusing on rules that will level the playing field so that small and medium-size producers have a fair shot,” Vilsack said, and added: “I commit to you that we will enforce the [current] rules.”
The Bush administration received wide criticism in the organic industry for not only letting Aurora Dairy off the hook without any substantive penalties but also for their lax approach to investigating alleged improprieties by industry giant Dean Foods and its Horizon label. A large percentage of the Horizon milk comes from concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs. In 2006 the largest dairy operation supplying Horizon, with 10,000-cows, was decertified, but according to FOIA documents the 8000-head, corporate-owned Horizon dairy in Idaho has never been investigated.
"It is inexcusable that the past administration did not protect the vast majority of ethical dairy marketers and the family farmers we partner with," said Ned Mac Arthur, President of Pennsylvania-based Natural Dairy Products Corp., bottler of Natural by Nature brand organic milk. "We are now placing our hope and trust in the new Obama/Vilsack administration at the USDA.”
"The good news that we continue to tell organic consumers is that based on our in-depth industry research 90% of all namebrand organic dairy products on the market are produced with true integrity, Kastel affirmed. "No matter where someone lives in this country there are many wonderful brands of organic milk, cheese, butter, yogurt and ice cream that conform to not only the letter of the law but the spirit of what has made organics such a successful and fast-growing segment of our nations' food supply."
The formal legal complaint alleging inadequate access to pasture at Aurora's High Plains dairy, near Kearney, Colorado.
Photos of the High Plains dairy:
A 10 minute video, produced by documentarian Greta Wing Miller, of USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack's appearance, listening to organic farmers heartfelt appeals for enforcement help, and his powerful on-point response:
Organic consumers recognizing that they had been defrauded when buying the milk produced by Aurora have taken the matter into their own hands by suing the giant dairy manufacturer and a number of major retailers that sell their milk, including Wal-Mart, Target, Costco and Safeway. Aurora is the largest private-label organic milk supplier in the United States. The class-action consumer fraud litigation is still embroiled in federal court.
“Our initial investigations, including photography, satellite imagery, and interviews with dairy industry professionals who visited the facility, indicate that this giant farm is not grazing their cattle or providing pasture in accordance with federal law,” stated Will Fantle, research director at Cornucopia. “Although they have some pasture, the number of cows per acre does not meet legal precedents, and the quality of the pasture, grown in the semiarid conditions of Colorado, also does not meet legal definitions—this corporation is continuing to ‘game the system’ and needs to be brought to justice.”
Cornucopia also asked the USDA to reopen investigations against the two NOP accredited certifiers associated with Aurora. The complaint alleges that the illegal activities identified by The Cornucopia Institute and the USDA at Aurora were overt and should have been uncovered by the certifiers, and the state of Colorado's organic program and Quality Assurance International (QAI), if they had been fulfilling their oversight responsibilities.
USDA staff had previously recommended suspending the State of Colorado's right to certify organic livestock facilities. Like Aurora itself the USDA entered into a consent agreement with the state of Colorado demanding improved staff training and understanding of organic livestock certification requirements.