Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Lawsuits Announced Against Nation's Biggest Organic Dairy

Acting on behalf of organic food
consumers in 27 states, class action lawsuits are being filed in U.S.
federal courts, in St. Louis and Denver, against the nation’s largest
organic dairy. The suits charge Aurora Dairy Corporation, based in
Boulder, Colorado, with allegations of consumer fraud, negligence,
and unjust enrichment concerning the sale of organic milk by the
company. This past April, Aurora officials received a notice from
the USDA detailing multiple and “willful” violations of federal
organic law that were found by federal investigators.

“This is the largest scandal in the history of the organic industry,”
said Mark Kastel of The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based farm
policy research group. Cornucopia’s 2005 formal legal complaint
first alerted USDA investigators to the improprieties occurring at
Aurora. “Aurora was taking advantage of the consumer’s good will in
the marketplace toward organics, and the USDA has allowed this
scofflaw-corporation to continue to operate,” Kastel added.

Law firms based in Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri have so far have
filed one of the lawsuits in Missouri, with another suit, covering
dozens of additional states where plaintiffs live, due to be filed in
Denver tomorrow. The attorneys are seeking damages from Aurora to
reimburse consumers harmed by the company’s actions and are
requesting that the U.S. District Courts put an injunction in place
to halt the ongoing sale of Aurora’s organic milk in the nation’s
grocery stores until it can be demonstrated that the company is
complying with federal organic regulations.

Aurora, with $100 million in annual sales, provides milk that is sold
as organic and packaged as private label, store-brand products for
some of the nation’s biggest chains, including Wal-Mart, Target,
Costco, Safeway, Wild Oats, and about 20 others.

Independent investigators at the USDA concluded earlier this year
that Aurora—with five dairy facilities in Colorado and Texas, each
milking thousands of cows—had 14 “willful” violations of federal
organic regulations. One of the most egregious of the findings was
that from December 5, 2003, to April 16, 2007, the Aurora Dairy
“labeled and represented milk as organically produced, when such milk
was not produced and handled in accordance with the National Organic
Program regulations.”

Cornucopia's research, since confirmed by a two-year investigation by
federal law enforcement agents, found that Aurora was confining their
cows to pens and sheds in feedlots rather than grazing the animals as
the federal law requires. Furthermore, Aurora brought conventional
animals into their organic milking operation in a manner prohibited
by the Organic Food Production Act, a law passed by Congress in 1990
and implemented in 2002 by the USDA.

“We believe that there are tens of thousands of consumers across the
United States who have been directly impacted by Aurora’s practices,”
said Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association. “We are
pleased to see this legal action. We will do what we can to ensure
that organic continues to mean organic and that consumers get exactly
that when they are paying premium prices for organic food,” Cummins

“I feel cheated by Aurora’s organic misrepresentations,” said Sandie
Regan, an organic consumer from Crown Point, Indiana, and one of the
parties to the lawsuit. “I am willing to pay more at the grocery
store for organic milk because I believe the milk is healthier for
me. But it doesn’t look like I was getting what I paid for,” Regan

In addition to Missouri plaintiffs being represented by the St.
Louis, Missouri–based law firm Simon Passanante, the larger
multistate Denver suit is being handled by, attorneys from Lane,
Alton, Horst in Columbus, Ohio, Wolf, Haldenstein, Adler, Freeman,
and Herz in Chicago, Illinois, and Gray, Ritter, and Graham, also
based in St. Louis.

“We encourage anyone who has purchased some of Aurora’s private-label
products to contact OCA or Cornucopia, and we will help them obtain
justice,” the Cornucopia's Kastel added. Although not plaintiffs
themselves, the two public-interest groups have supported the lawsuit
through research and organizing. A list of the grocery chains
supplied by Aurora, the nation's largest private-label bottler, can
be secured by contacting OCA or Cornucopia.

Cornucopia and OCA point out that Aurora is a "horrible aberration"
and that the vast majority of all organic dairy products are produced
with high integrity. In a scorecard published last year, and
available on their web site, Cornucopia rates over 90% of organic
name-brand dairy products as truly subscribing to the letter and
spirit of the law (available at www.cornucopia.org).

“Aurora’s actions have injured the reputation of the more than 1500
legitimate organic dairy farmers who are faithfully following federal
organic rules and regulations,” noted Kastel. “We cannot allow these
families to be placed at a competitive disadvantage.”

Many industry observers feel that the USDA’s enforcement mechanism
broke down in the Aurora case. After career USDA staff drafted a
Letter of Proposed Revocation, seeking to prevent Aurora from
engaging in organic commerce, political appointees at the agency
intervened, crafting an agreement allowing Aurora to remain in business.

"It is unconscionable that the USDA allowed Aurora to continue, after
making millions of dollars, in this ‘ethics-based’ industry, when
they had concluded that Aurora willfully violated the law," Kastel
added. "However, there is a higher authority in terms of organic
integrity than the USDA—that's the organic consumer. And they are
about to make their voices heard through the courts."

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