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 6,000 cows, appears to have violated numerous organic regulations governing the rearing of animals entering its operation.
Mark A. Kastel, senior farm policy analyst for the Wisconsin-based Institute, says a nearby ranch not certified as organic has been supplying thousands of replacement cows to the Aurora Dairy. 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 is extremely troubling," Kastel adds. "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 notes.
If the heifer ranch providing thousands 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," says 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 â€“ it's a cheaper management tool â€“ and is the same practice used to confine the thousands of milk cows on Aurora's nearby industrial-scale dairy operation.
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 adds.
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 â€“ because they are located in an extremely dry, arid region â€“ that is no excuse to scoff at the organic regulations," Kastel says.
"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," says 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 adds, "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."