23 September 2014

CORNUCOPIA, WISCONSIN: The Cornucopia Institute has filed a formal legal complaint with the USDA requesting a full investigation into allegations of multiple violations of federal organic regulations at the nation’s largest organic dairy. The Aurora Organic Dairy, located in Colorado and with a herd approaching 6000 cows, appears to have violated numerous organic regulations governing the rearing of animals entering its vast factory farm operation.



“We have filed this complaint following our visit to the site of a nearby ranch that has been supplying – on a contract basis – hundreds of replacement cows to the Aurora Dairy,” said Mark A. Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst for the Wisconsin-based Institute.



“From our investigation, review of records and extensive interviews with the ranch owner, it appears that the operation has never had its livestock practices certified as organic,” Kastel said.



Organic certification requires an onsite inspection by an accredited certifying agent, the filing of an organic management plan, and careful record keeping on animals entering and leaving the livestock farm. This approach is the backbone of the USDA’s organic program and is designed to be a firewall blocking unsound practices that produce food unfit for the strict standards expected of the organic food label.



“This is extremely troubling,” Kastel added. “The owner of the ranch told us that he has never filed an organic livestock management plan or been visited by an organic inspector. Instead, he has been following the directives given to him by Aurora management for the handling of their replacement animals.”



The ranch, operated by Steven T. Wells of Gill, Colorado, is also raising thousands of animals for other conventional agricultural operations. “Of all the organic livestock facilities in the country, none would warrant, based on its size, scope, and complexity of operation, closer organic management scrutiny,” Kastel noted.



If the heifer ranch providing hundreds of new cows has never been certified, then consumers might rightly question whether or not the dairy products made from Aurora’s milk meet federal organic food and production standards. “These same consumers are paying premium prices for products carrying the organic label. They must be assured that the practices used in producing the food are 100% organic, and not some cheap shortcut taken by suspect producers seeking to cash in on organics in the marketplace,” said Kastel.



Other questionable organic management practices were also raised in The Cornucopia Institute’s complaint. The replacement cows were not pastured, as required by the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, the law that governs all domestic organic farming and food processing. The cows were instead penned into a large commercial feedlot. This tactic is favored by conventional factory farm operators – it’s a cheaper management tool – and is the same practice used to confine the thousands of milk cows on Aurora’s nearby industrial-scale dairy operation.



“Mr. Wells told us that the only time the animals were briefly placed on pasture was when Aurora’s management asked that they be pastured because of negative publicity in the media about their farm or when they were concerned about a potential inspection of the premises,” Kastel said.



"I was uncomfortable when Aurora approach me to consider raising feed and replacement animals for them. I have worked with them when their dairy was still producing conventional milk and it was not a happy experience,” Wells stated. “I agreed to convert cropland to organic production and handle their livestock according to their instructions because they touted a major investment from Harvard University and the scrutiny of a third-party certifier."



Wells contacted The Cornucopia Institute when widespread media reports questioning Aurora's management practices came to his attention. "My biggest regret is installing the gates giving their cattle ‘access’ to my rangeland. Being only outside of the feedlot for two weeks out of the past year it seems that Aurora was only interested in creating the illusion of their heifers and dry cows being on pasture," Wells added.



Federal law does give farmers the ability to remove cows from pasture for "temporary" reasons based on weather, environmental, or health considerations. However, in their complaint, The Cornucopia Institute countered that the claim that pasture is impractical, or not cost-effective, in arid Colorado is no excuse under the law.



"There are many places in the United States that are not ecologically compatible with organic livestock agriculture. If Aurora cannot incorporate a meaningful amount of pasture into their directives for rearing the thousands of replacement animals required by their factory farm operation – because they are located in an extremely dry, arid region – that is no excuse to scoff at the organic regulations," Kastel said.



“We expect the USDA to make a full and careful investigation into the concerns raised in Cornucopia’s complaint, especially since they involve the nation’s largest organic dairy operator,” said Kastel.



Aurora Organic Dairy specializes in processing "private-label" milk for grocery chains. According to a recent New York Times story and other industry sources, Aurora packages milk for Safeway, Wild Oats, Target and Costco, among others. They also supply milk to the nation's largest organic brand-name label, Horizon, owned by the corporate dairy colossus, Dean Foods.



“The investigation,” Kastel added, “must include a site visit and interviews with responsible parties. If remedial actions are required, the USDA should demand that they occur. Anything less would make a mockery of the federal organic regulations that are so diligently observed by the vast majority of participants in the nation’s organic agriculture and food sector.”



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The Cornucopia Institute, a nonprofit farm policy research group, is dedicated to the fight for economic justice for the family-scale farming community. Their Organic Integrity Project acts as a corporate and governmental watchdog assuring that no compromises to the credibility of organic farming methods and the food it produces are made in the pursuit of profit