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Certification Yanked at Big Organic Dairy

By Samuel Fromartz

In a sign that pressure is mounting on big confinement organic dairy farms, Quality Assurance International, a major organic certification agency, has yanked certification for the Case Vander Eyk organic dairy in California, an operation with an estimated 3,500 cows.

This dairy in the central valley of California has been the subject of complaints by the advocacy group, Cornucopia Institute. But QAI's decision marks the first time a certifier has suspended a big confinement dairy, though these farms have been criticized for years.

Photo: Cornucopia Institute

"The process took quite a long time," one source with direct knowledge of the situation said, because of the review requirements under the USDA's National Organic Program.

Once certification is suspended, as it was in this case in mid-May, the operation can no longer sell its products as organic. It can, however, appeal the certifier's decision to the NOP, which then reviews the details of the case.

One source said the farm didn't comply with organic regulations in a number of areas, including pasture.

The Vander Eyk dairy was among several large-scale farms that became lightening rods in the organic  industry over the past several years as the organic dairy market expanded at 20-30 percent a year.

Several large scale farms came on line and others were looking to transition to the market. But many organic dairy farmers, consumer groups and advocates strongly objected to these confinement dairy farms that offered little or no pasture to their milking cows.

Complaints were filed with the USDA's National Organic Program and efforts redoubled to tighten up the regulatory language requiring pasture so these large-scale confinement farms would be shut down.

The Vander Eyk dairy, which had both conventional and organic operations, had been selling milk to Horizon Organic, but it was yanked as a supplier when its contract ran out in 2006, because it no longer met the company's standards. Horizon, the largest organic milk company, had come under a lot of pressure for a large-scale dairy farm it owns in Idaho. But it has since invested millions in the farm to add pasture in a process that is now nearly complete.

Horizon Organic has backed a tighter organic pasture standard, calling for cows to graze at least 120 days on pasture with at least 30 percent of the cow's nutritional needs coming from fresh grass. Organic dairy farmers nationwide are pushing for this strict language and it is currently under review by the NOP.

The Vander Eyk farm was among several, such as Aurora Organic in Colorado, which did not offer meaningful pasture access to its cows. But the language was so vague in the current regulations that it became a loophole that allowed organic confinement farms to exist, much to the dismay of many organic proponents.

"Your headline should read 'Case Closed,'" said Mark Kastel of Cornucopia Institute.

But the final chapter of these big organic dairy farms has yet to be written.