Organic Consumers Association

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QAI, World's Largest Organic Certifier, Still in Bed with Horizon & Aurora Certifying Factory Farm Practices as 'Organic'

SO YOU'VE DECIDED to go organic. You head to your local natural foods store and hoist a half-gallon carton of Woodstock Farms organic milk off the shelf. It costs nearly twice as much as conventional milk, and you wonder if it's really worth it. But you notice the idyllic picture on the carton: cows grazing happily on sunny stretches of pasture. It affirms your belief that healthier, happier cows produce more nutritious milk.

On the carton's back is another hook: the "Certified Organic" approval stamp from San Diego's own Quality Assurance International. You drop the carton into the basket and head for the register, satisfied you're getting what you're paying for: milk from happy, grass-fed cows raised on a small dairy farm.

Guess again.

QAI is North America's largest for-profit organic certifier. Its job--along with the 94 other USDA-accredited certifiers-- is to confirm by inspection whether the producers, processors, handlers and retailers seeking the "Certified Organic" stamp are adhering to the 2002 organic standards. But controversy has erupted over what critics are calling QAI's loose interpretation of the standards--and whether the San Diego certifier is, in effect, allowing companies to bend, if not break, the rules.

Mark Kastel, cofounder of The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based organic watchdog group, dubbed QAI the "corporate certifier of convenience" for its propensity to certify most of the "suspect" large-scale dairy operations that his organization is monitoring. According to Kastel, many of these "factory farms," which supply milk to Horizon (owned by Dean Foods) and Aurora Dairy (which markets under the Woodstock Farms brand), are skirting the rules by confining thousands of cows in feedlot-like conditions with minimal time grazing onpasture.

But QAI, as well as Horizon and Aurora, assert that since the law simply says cows must have "access to pasture," these "suspect" operations are actually in compliance. Kastel, however, says they are ignoring other passages, such as the one that says livestock living conditions must "accommodate the health and natural behavior of animals. For most livestock, that does not mean being confined in a pen, eating out of a concrete feed trough."

There are other controversies surrounding QAI. Kastel's organization recently discovered Wal-Mart selling an "organic" infant formula, certified by QAI, that contained synthetic ingredients not approved by organic standards. Jim Riddle, former chairman of the National Organic Standards Board, also expressed concern that QAI approves products containing "food contact substances" that don't meet organic standards.

QAI general manager David Abney says he can't talk about specific clients, stating only that his organization "certifies to the regulation."

In February, The Cornucopia Institute announced it would be taking the USDA to court for its failure to enforce the law. "The USDA is guilty of looking the other way," says Kastel. "I'm not sure what the hell QAI is looking at."

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