This, fresh from the Cornucopia Institute, is big news:

Tonight at 7:20 p.m. EST, August 29, the USDA issued an emergency news release announcing that they had sent a Letter of Revocation to the Aurora Organic Dairy. In lieu of revoking Aurora’s organic certification, the Agency has instead entered into a consent agreement requiring the nation’s largest certified organic dairy to make substantial and wide-ranging changes to the livestock management practices at their operations in Texas and Colorado.

Cornucopia’s been after Aurora for a while now, and this is vindication. I wish scrappy, effective little organizations like Cornucopia got more of the philanthropy money sloshing around the green world. (For one thing, they could spiff up their woefully dysfunctional website.)

Aurora 'organic' dairy
(photo: Cornucopia Institute)

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The rest of the press release is under the fold.

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If the terms of the agreement are not met, USDA officials warn Aurora’s management that the agreement they have reached “will be withdrawn” and the Agency may “revoke the organic certification” for Aurora’s Platteville, CO dairy processing plant that packages private label milk for several national chains, including Wal-Mart, Costco, Target, Trader Joe’s and Safeway. The USDA also warns Aurora’s officials that their operations “will be closely monitored for compliance with the provisions of the agreement.” Although Aurora is the largest private-label organic milk supplier in the United States they also market milk under their own label; High Meadows.

Additionally, Aurora has agreed not to renew the organic certification for its Woodward, Colo., facility.

Unlike the crass public relations spin that was released by Aurora earlier today the formal legal complaints Cornucopia filed with USDA against Aurora in 2005 and 2006 were not dismissed. In fact, earlier tonight I received a call from a high-ranking USDA official to say that the Agency had specifically rushed their official news release on the events out to the public in an effort to dispel the misinformation caused by Aurora’s factually erroneous representations.

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Although we should be proud at The Cornucopia Institute that our meticulous research and well documented legal complaints have resulted in this action, and the previously announced decertification of the 10,000-head Vander Eyk dairy in California, we are still not wholly satisfied with the outcome and enforcement action taken by the USDA.

After years of delay Aurora, having expanded to five industrial scale dairies in Colorado and Texas, is still being allowed to remain in business despite being found guilty of multiple violations of organic law. These were not accidental violations — they were willful and premeditated violations of the law by a multimillion dollar business enterprise, the largest organic dairy producer in the United States.

All of the allegations that we outlined in our legal complaints (available on our website) are delineated in this consent agreement. The investigators at AMS compliance have obviously done their jobs well and are to be commended for their diligence. But it is the political appointees at USDA that have decided to let Aurora off somewhat easy in this matter. This is exactly what we warned about in our news release of August 14.

Major points that were detailed in the original Cornucopia legal complaints and that are also addressed in the consent agreement include:

  • Aurora was not allowing their animals access to pasture
  • Aurora brought in animals from a non-certified contract heifer ranch
  • Aurora converted animals from conventional to organic production when the regulations (because of their initial 80/20 conversion) prohibited that.
  • And Aurora purchased organic feed for their Texas operation from a friend of the dairy manager who had sprayed his crops with herbicides during transition.

During all of this time, Aurora was building market share, helping drive the price down for "real" organic farmers, and being a driving force behind the current surplus in the organic dairy market. They were defrauding consumers by selling milk that did not qualify to be labeled as organic.

The USDA chose not to levy any fines and Aurora is being allowed to remain in business. It must be noted that §205.100(c)(1) of the organic regulations states 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.”

This is only a partial victory in protecting the economic interests of the family scale dairy farmers we work for.

Stay tuned. We will aggressively be telling consumers, and the wholesale buyers, that have been buying milk from Aurora, that they have been scammed by charlatans. Hopefully ethical businesses will discontinue their relationship with Aurora and we will see the surplus eaten away by new demand for "real" organic milk.

I want to thank the staff of The Cornucopia Institute for their hard work over the years in pursuing our complaints against Vander Eyk, Aurora and Dean Foods/Horizon (the only factory-farm dairy operator, profiled in our complaints, that has yet to be adjudicated by the USDA). I particularly want to thank our research director, Will Fantle who is responsible for crafting our legal complaints and our legal counsel, Gary Cox, who has helped review documents and spearheaded our lawsuit against the USDA for release of related documents they had illegally withheld from the public.

I especially want to thank the many members of The Cornucopia Institute who had confidence in our work and have financially underwritten the expenses related to this campaign. It is an honor to work for the organic farmers of this country who I have so much respect and admiration for.

We will be releasing more news and analysis when it becomes available.

Best regards,

Mark Kastel
The Cornucopia Institute