Wednesday, August 15, 2007

USDA Finally Cracking down on Factory Farms Masquerading as Organic - Largest Dairy Facing Decertification

The Cornucopia Institute has learned that the USDAappears about to revoke the organic certification of the nation'slargest industrial dairy operator, Aurora Organic Dairy, withcorporate headquarters in Boulder, Colorado.

Aurora operates several giant factory dairies milking thousands ofcows each in semi-arid areas of Colorado and Texas. The company hasbeen the subject of a series of formal legal complaints filed withthe USDA by The Cornucopia Institute. The complaints from theWisconsin-based farm policy group filed in 2005 and 2006, called fora USDA investigation into allegations of numerous organic livestockmanagement improprieties on Aurora’s facilities.

“After personally inspecting some of Aurora’s dairies in Texas andColorado, we found 98% of their cattle in feedlots instead of grazingon pasture as the law requires,” stated Mark Kastel, Cornucopia’ssenior farm policy analyst. Cornucopia also found that Aurora wasprocuring cattle from a non-certified organic source in apparentviolation of the law. “Our sources tell us that the USDA’sinvestigators found many other violations when conducting their probeof Aurora.”

But Kastel warned that the USDA is under intense pressure to scuttle the Aurora decertification order. “We understand that powerfulpolitical influence is being brought to bear on the USDA in an effortto delay or water down the penalties against Aurora,” noted Kastel.

As part of their investigation of Aurora, compliance officers at theUSDA took sworn testimony from Cornucopia staff, visited Aurora'sfacilities and interviewed their organic certifier, the State ofColorado. The Institute found out about the impending enforcementaction, and the potential for its delay, from officials in Colorado,a political appointee at the USDA and a highly placed industryexecutive.The organic industry is carefully watching what the USDA does withthe Aurora matter because of its size and impact on the marketplace.

Aurora doesn't directly market milk under its own name, but it is the country's largest private-label producer of organic milk. Aurorapackages store-brand organic dairy products for Wal-Mart, Costco,Target, Safeway, Trader Joe's, Wild Oats, and other grocery chains.“The organic regulations are scale neutral,” added Kastel. “In termsof enforcement it shouldn't matter if we are talking about a powerfulcorporate player, with thousands of cows, or a smaller familyoperation, bad actors in this industry need to be removed from themarketplace.”

Because of the delay in USDA enforcement against Aurora Dairy, The Cornucopia Institute today filed a Freedom of Information request(FOIA) with the USDA to secure documents that could uncover possibleinfluence peddling and favoritism at the Department. “We hope thatthe USDA will issue tough sanctions, if warranted,” Kastel said.“And we want the agency to know that the organic community is veryclosely monitoring this case.”

Earlier this spring the 10,000-cow Vander Eyk factory dairy inPixley, California lost its organic certification after aninvestigation revealed numerous violations of federal organic rules.The industrial-scale operation had been publicly spotlighted by TheCornucopia Institute for organic management irregularities. TheVander Eyk dairy had been selling its milk to Stremicks (Heritage-Foods) and Dean Foods (Horizon).

Based on documents recently received by Cornucopia through an earlier FOIA request, the Vander Eck dairy lost their ability to marketorganic milk not only because they lacked pasture for their cattlebut also because they violated requirements for careful record-keeping to assure that all cows milked were eligible for organiccertification and all the feed they consumed was actually organicallygrown.

“It now appears that our concerns about the giant industrial dairycutting corners by confining cattle in a ‘factory-farm’ setting wasjust the tip of the iceberg,” said Will Fantle, Cornucopia's researchdirector. “The foundation of the organic certification process isthe maintenance of a comprehensive farm audit trail which can bereviewed by independent certification inspectors and the USDA. Thefact that Vander Eyk could not produce the documents requested by hiscertifier, and that he did not appeal the enforcement action, is just damning.”

The controversy about the growing number of factory-farms producingorganic milk has come to a head this year as the number of farmerstransitioning to organic dairy production has dramatically increasedcausing a surplus of organic milk for the first time. That surplus, largely attributed to the mega-farms, is now driving down prices tofamily farmers around the country endangering their livelihoods. It's also become a tragedy for some family farmers around the countrywho have gone through the arduous and expensive three-year transitionto organic management but now have nowhere to ship their milk.“

With at least 15 of these giant dairies operating, mostly in the arid west, they have succeeded in jeopardizing the livelihood of the1500 or so ethical dairy farm families who are doing this right,”said Merrill Clark, an organic livestock producer from Cassopolis, Michigan and former member of the USDA's expert advisory panel, theNational Organic Standards Board.

“The good news for consumers is that in our survey of organic dairybrands (posted on a full 90% of namebrandproducts received very high ratings in our scorecard that critiquedthe environmental and animal husbandry practices used in sourcing theorganic milk for the dairy products,” the Cornucopia's Kastel said.“With a small amount of research, consumers who care aboutmaintaining the integrity of organics can easily find organic dairyproducts they can believe in.”

Aurora is owned by some of the same conventional factory-farmoperators that founded the Horizon Organic brand and then later soldit to Dean Foods. Aurora's largest equity stake is controlled byCharlesBank of Boston, which invests capital for the Harvardendowment fund.Rumors have also been swirling in the investment community that Aurora’s owners are seeking to sell the company or to take it public.

The Cornucopia Institute is dedicated to the fight for economicjustice for the family-scale farming community. Through research,advocacy and economic development our goal is to empower farmers bothpolitically and through marketplace initiatives. The OrganicIntegrity Project acts as a corporate watchdog assuring that nocompromises to the credibility of organic farming methods and thefood it produces are made in the pursuit of profit.

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