USDA requires Aurora Organics to reduce dairy herd size
and remove organic label from some milk
CORNUCOPIA, WI: The USDA issued an urgent news release Wednesday evening announcing enforcement actions taken against the Aurora Organic Dairy, based in Boulder, CO, the nation’s largest organic factory-farm operation. USDA’s enforcement requirements for Aurora include "removing certain animals from the organic herd and ceasing to apply the organic label to certain milk."
The action is the result of an investigation triggered by formal legal complaints filed in 2005 and 2006 with the USDA by The Cornucopia Institute charging multiple violations of federal organic regulations. Cornucopia, a Wisconsin-based farm policy group, made on-site visits to the dairy giant’s factory-farm operations in Colorado and Texas, gathering evidence supporting its complaints.
"While we are pleased that widespread changes to Aurora’s factory-farms have been ordered, we don’t think the USDA went far enough," said Mark Kastel, Cornucopia’s senior farm analyst. "We think Aurora should have been slapped with a significant fine for deliberately abusing organic integrity and consumer trust and for flooding the market with bogus organic milk."
This year the growth in the organic milk supply, due in great degree to "factory-farms" bringing on production, is pushing down farm prices paid to ethical organic family farmers. "These were not accidental violations at Aurora—they were described by the USDA as ‘willful’. They were premeditated violations of the law by a multimillion dollar business enterprise, the largest organic dairy producer in the United States," said Kastel. "Aurora has competitively injured the nation's family-scale farmers"
Federal organic regulations state that "any operation that knowingly sells or labels a product as organic, except in accordance with the Act, shall be subject to a civil penalty of not more than $10,000 per violation."
Aurora has been operating five factory-farms, housing thousands of animals each in confinement conditions in Colorado and Texas. They package private-label milk for store brands sold at several national chains, including Wal-Mart, Costco, Target, Trader Joe's, and Safeway. They also market dairy products under their own label, High Meadows.
Under the terms of USDA’s consent agreement reached with Aurora, the federal agency is allowing the company to continue to operate as a certified organic dairy operation. But they have warned Aurora that they will be under increased scrutiny and may have their organic certification pulled for their dairy processing plant if they fail to follow through on the requirements contained in the agreement.
Cornucopia’s investigation of Aurora revealed, and the USDA confirmed, that:
*Aurora was confining thousands of animals in feed-lots, rather than pasturing their animals as required by federal regulations.
*Aurora was bringing in conventional replacement animals to its organic dairy herd—animals not qualified to produce organic milk and some from a heifer ranch that lacked organic certification.
*Aurora purchased organic feed for their Texas operation from a friend of the dairy manager who had sprayed his land with herbicides.
*Aurora was converting animals to its organic operation in violation of allowed conversion practices (under the federal 80/20 conversion rule).
*And the most serious violation, selling, labeling and representing milk as organically produced when it did not legally qualify — in "willful" violation of the law.
Cornucopia’s sources at the USDA indicate that the enforcement action had been in the works for as long as 18 months and was the subject of political maneuverings as Aurora sought to downplay and lessen the extent of its sanctions.
"I think all the small family farms should get an 18 month exemption from the rules like Aurora," observed, tongue-in-cheek, by organic dairy farmer George Wright, of Herman, NY. "And how many years has Horizon had to get their pasture structure going?" asked Wright, referring to another 8000-head factory-dairy under USDA investigation stemming from a separate Cornucopia legal complaint. Adds Wright: "I think they should all be shut down until they can fully comply with all the rules just like the rest of us. This would also help take care of the surplus of milk they created."
The USDA’s enforcement order stipulates that Aurora’s Platteville factory dairy must:
Provide daily access to pasture during the growing season and not use the cows lactation cycle as an excuse for confinement in the feedlot
Reduce the number of cows at the facility consistent with available pasture and stocking densities
Remove cows from the herd that were improperly transitioned to organics
Use the more stringent National Organic Program regulations for bringing new animals into the organic herd
Aurora also agreed not to renew the organic certification for its Woodward, CO, facility. Additionally, Aurora agreed to enter into written agreements with suppliers of animals for its Dublin, TX, facility that verify the certification of those suppliers and the proper transitioning to the organic status of those animals.
The Cornucopia Institute said that they were also investigating civil or administrative actions against both of the certifiers that oversee Aurora's operation, the State of Colorado and San Diego-based Quality Assurance International.
"Not only were they obviously not properly enforcing the National Organic Standards, but they went out of their way to inappropriately partner with and defend Aurora in the company’s own news release downplaying the impact of the USDA action," said The Cornucopia Institute's research director, Will Fantle. "This subterfuge is inexcusable and potentially actionable." Certifiers are required by law to maintain strict independence in their relationship with the business entities they are supervising.
An impassioned Kastel added, "The premeditated actions by Aurora Organic Dairy, and their efforts to deceive the public, constitute consumer fraud. "We expect that responsible grocery chains that have been purchasing Aurora’s milk will now want to distance themselves from Aurora and procure ethically produced organic milk from the nation’s family farmers."
Cornucopia says that from an economic standpoint the defrocking of Aurora dairy couldn't have happened at a more opportune time. "There's a surplus of organic milk right now and retailers can find a substitute for Aurora’s faux organic milk," observed Kastel.
Officials at Aurora have indicated that the USDA mandated changes will cost the company $3.3 million. The company has said they will downsize their herd at the Platteville facility to 1250 milking cows (the herd numbered 4000–5000 cows when Cornucopia visited the site in 2005) and raze three-quarters of the buildings and feedlots on the site so as to add more of the required pasture for the milking herd.
A photo gallery of the Aurora factory-farm operation can be viewed at the Cornucopia web page at www.cornucopia.org. The USDA’s news release announcing the enforcement action can also viewed at www.cornucopia.org/Aurora/USDANewsRelease_AuroraAgreement.pdf.