Monday, May 12, 2008

America's Largest Corporate Dairy Processor Muscles Its Way into Organics

After a three-and-a-half year battle with Dean Foods
regarding the legality of milk it labels as Horizon Organic, the
country's most aggressive organic industry watchdog filed additional
legal actions today. Dean, the nation's largest dairy processor,
with nearly $12 billion in sales and controlling 50 different milk
brands, has obtained a large percentage of its organic milk supply
from giant factory farms milking thousands of cows each.

The Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group and family
farm advocate, filed a formal legal complaint with the USDA claiming
that one of Dean’s Horizon suppliers, a dairy in Snelling,
California, was skirting the law by confining the majority of their
cows to a filthy feedlot rather than allowing them fresh grass and
access to pasture as the federal organic regulations require.

Cornucopia has also asked the Inspector General at the USDA to
investigate appearances of favoritism at the agency that has
benefitted Dean Foods. Cornucopia charges that past enforcement of
the Organic Foods Production Act, the law governing organic food
labeling and production, has been unequally applied toward major
corporate agribusiness by the USDA.

“We are asking the USDA, once again, to investigate serious alleged
improprieties at dairies that produce Horizon organic milk,” said
Mark A. Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst with the Wisconsin-based
Cornucopia Institute.

Besides the legal issues that Cornucopia raised, they suggest Dean
Foods has seriously injured the value of its Horizon label and the
reputation of organic milk. “In the eyes of consumers, factory farms—
with questions about humane animal husbandry and records of endemic
pollution—do not meet the ethical litmus test,” Kastel added.

Cornucopia's most recent complaint is the third filed with the USDA
alleging Dean Foods has broken the federal law that governs organic
production. Prior complaints also charged Dean was confining cattle
on their two corporate-owned dairies, managing as many as 8,000 head
of cattle each.

Although the USDA, based on Cornucopia research, sanctioned or
decertified two independent factory farms supplying Horizon, the
federal agency dismissed both legal complaints against Dean Foods
itself. According to documents obtained under the Freedom of
Information Act (FOIA) by Cornucopia, the USDA never investigated or
even visited Dean's largest corporate-owned industrial dairy, in the
desert-like conditions of central Idaho.

“It appears that Dean Foods has more political clout in Washington
than the two independent factory farm operators that were found to
have been abusing the trust of organic consumers,” according to Will
Fantle, Research Director at Cornucopia.

According to FOIA documents, Dean Foods hired lawyers at Covington
and Burling, one of the capital’s most powerful and influential legal
and lobbying groups, to plead their case. “The USDA closed
complaints we filed in 2005 and 2006 without ever having visited the
Horizon dairy in Idaho, and warned Dean Foods in advance before
inspecting their Maryland farm,” stated Fantle.

In a letter to USDA Inspector General Phyllis K. Fong, Cornucopia
asked her to investigate why the agency arbitrarily chose to
adjudicate some of the formal legal complaints filed by Cornucopia
but looked the other way when it came to the largest corporate dairy
processor and marketer in the country for almost identical alleged

Cornucopia's letter stated, “Conditions on the 8,000-head factory
farm operated by Dean/Horizon in Idaho were very similar to the
factory farms that the USDA has already sanctioned. The only
discernible difference appears to be how much money Dean Foods has
spent on lobbyists and campaign contributions in Washington.”

The Cornucopia Institute's latest complaint against the Fagundes
dairy in California calls into question Dean Foods’ marketing claim
that "80% of our milk comes from … family farmers."

“We have been challenging Dean Foods’ greenwashing of their Horizon
label for a number of years now,” stated Kastel. One of Horizon's
decertified suppliers, milking 10,000 cows, in a feedlot in Pixley,
California, was categorized as a "family farm" by Dean.

“My family and 1800 or so other organic farmers around the country
have worked hard to build the stellar reputation organic dairy
products deservingly enjoy in the eyes of consumers,” lamented Tony
Azevedo, one of the first organic dairy farmers in California milking
350 cows near the town of Stevinson. “Virtually every other name-
brand organic dairy product in the country depends exclusively on
real family farmers to produce their milk. We don't want subterfuge
by confinement dairies giving us all a black eye and endangering our

"Ninety percent of all participants in the marketplace are
approaching organic dairy production ethically," emphasized
Cornucopia's Kastel. A comprehensive report and scorecard, listing
organic brand-name and private-label organic dairy products, can be
found on The Cornucopia Institute website:

In addition to filing a formal legal complaint against Fagundes dairy
with regulators at the USDA, Cornucopia also sent the complaint to
the California Department of Agriculture that also oversees organic
production in the state.

Although past complaints regarding the integrity of organic
production have sometimes taken months or even years to adjudicate at
the state and federal levels Cornucopia's concerns elicited a
response in less than 24 hours from the dairy’s organic certifier,
CCOF, based in Santa Cruz, California. In a letter to Cornucopia
CCOF said, “Please note that CCOF takes organic livestock living
conditions extremely seriously.’ They added, “We will immediately
initiate a full investigation which will include an on-site
inspection of the operation.

Organic certifiers are on the front lines of efforts to protect
consumers and ethical farmers from fraud. “The immediate and serious
tone from CCOF should not be surprising as the certifier has been one
of the most highly respected organizations in the organic movement
since its founding in the early 1970s, said Fantle.

The letter sent to the USDA Office of Inspector General can be viewed

The formal legal complaint filed with the USDA regarding alleged
violations at the Fagundes organic factory farm dairy can be viewed at:

Images of the Fagundes operation can be viewed at:

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