Letters received yesterday by The Cornucopia Institute, Organic Consumers Association, and the Center for Food Safety from Aurora Organic Dairy, based in Boulder, Colorado, threatened the three public interest groups with a lawsuit if they did not retract statements they had made concerning Aurora and refrain from filing a lawsuit against Aurora alleging consumer fraud.
The legal threats by Aurora are the latest salvo in a media battle stemming from formal legal complaints filed by The Cornucopia Institute in 2005 and 2006 with the USDA over Aurora's alleged organic management practices. On April 16, 2007, the USDA confirmed Cornucopia's allegations by making administrative findings that the giant industrial-scale dairies, milking thousands of cows each, were not providing their cattle with pasture, as required by law, had illegally brought conventional cattle into their operations, and had committed a number of other serious improprieties.
The most serious finding, resulting from the USDA investigation, was that Aurora sold, labeled, and represented milk as organic when in fact it was not, in "willful violation" of the law.
"Aurora's legal threat, what public interest groups typically referred to as a SLAPP lawsuit (Strategic Lawsuit against Public Participation), will not intimidate The Cornucopia Institute, our Board of Directors, or our members," said Mark Kastel Codirector of the Wisconsin-based farm policy research group.
Although Aurora, the nation's largest private-label producer of private-label "organic" milk, marketed by retail giants such as Wal-Mart, Target, Costco, and Safeway, alleged defamation and demanded that the three groups discontinue publication of defamatory statements, Cornucopia's research director, Will Fantle, strongly stated that their work is fact based and was confirmed by an almost 2-year investigation conducted by the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service compliance officers.
"The Cornucopia Institute stands behind our research, the numerous interviews we have conducted corroborating our allegations, and especially the findings of federal law enforcement agents and the National Organic Program in this matter (as referenced in the USDA's Notice of Proposed Revocation)," Fantle added.
The nation's largest public interest group representing the interest of organic consumers, the Organic Consumers Association, issued the following statement, "Aurora Dairy is obviously concerned that we have been communicating with our membership in preparation of potentially filing a consumer fraud class action suit. Their attempt to intimidate our organization will not impact our work," said Ronnie Cummins, the group's director.
The common denominator, in terms of the threats from Aurora against the three nonprofit groups, seems to be the fact that all three had sent messages to their membership regarding the potential of organizing a possible lawsuit.
"Since filing a lawsuit against our groups could force Aurora to open up their record-keeping for examination, and require their officers and employees to give depositions regarding the disputed facts under oath, we would be surprised if they would expose themselves to that kind of scrutiny," said Kastel. "The secret weapon that we have if they decide to file suit against us is the wealth of testimony and research we secured from private, independent third parties prior to filing our legal complaint. Our research points to the same conclusion that the USDA's independent investigators found-'willful violations of the organic foods production act of 1990'."
The Organic Consumers Association's Director Ronnie Cummins added, "Aurora's willful violations of consumer trust, the very foundation of the organic industry, constitutes consumer fraud, and we can fully understand how they are uncomfortable with the fact that we have made their behavior fully known in the marketplace."
The letter from Aurora Organic Dairy to the three public interest groups, threatening a lawsuit, along with the USDA's Letter of Proposed Revocation and a copy of the consent agreement between the USDA and Aurora are available upon request.
Not being able to garner much positive news coverage on this issue Aurora yesterday purchased a full page ad in the large format trade publication Supermarket News. We would also be happy to make this document available.
Aurora Dairy Threatens to Sue OCA & Cornucopia to Intimidate Organic Watchdogs
Aurora Dairy Threatens to Sue Public Interest Groups Attempt to Intimidate Organic Watchdogs
Cornucopia Institute, September 25, 2007
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