Monday, September 03, 2007

Huge Dairy Flouts Organic Rules But Keeps Certification

by Andrew Martin
The New York Times
August 31, 2007

A huge Colorado organic dairy agreed yesterday to stop applying the organic label to some of its milk and make major changes in its operation after the Department of Agriculture threatened to revoke its organic certification for, among other problems, failing to provide enough pasture to its cows.

The dairy, Aurora Organic Dairy, which supplies private-label organic milk for many supermarket chains, must also remove some animals from the organic herd at its Platteville, Colo., farm, according to a Department of Agriculture statement released late yesterday that outlined the terms of a consent agreement with the dairy.

While the U.S.D.A. has taken action against other organic producers, the consent decree with Aurora represents a rare show of force against a leading supplier of products to the rapidly expanding market for organic foods.

“The organic industry is booming, and the National Organic Program is a high priority for the U.S.D.A.,” said Bruce I. Knight, under secretary for marketing and regulatory programs. “And through this consent agreement consumers can be assured that milk labeled as organic in the supermarket is indeed organic.”

In the last two years, Aurora’s large organic dairy farm has become a flashpoint in a vitriolic debate over what constitutes organic. Some critics charge that some entrepreneurs and major food companies have tried to cash in on an industry that has grown to $14 billion a year in sales, and have tried to weaken the organic standards in the process.

Organic milk costs as much as $6 a gallon; regular milk sells for about $3.80 a gallon.

Several large dairies like Aurora have sought to market organic milk while replicating the efficiencies of large conventional dairy farms. At one time, the Platteville farm had 4,200 milking cows; most organic dairy farms have fewer than 100 cows.

The Cornucopia Institute, a farm advocacy group in Wisconsin, initially filed a complaint against Aurora in 2005 contending that the company was not abiding by organic certification rules that required dairy cows to have regular access to pasture. The U.S.D.A. dismissed the complaint several months later, but the Cornucopia Institute filed a second complaint in 2006.

Mark A. Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, called the U.S.D.A.’s decision a vindication yesterday, but he complained that the company got off with light punishment. Mr. Kastel noted that Aurora had been able to build a commanding market share at the expense of smaller family farmers while flouting the organic rules.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company


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