After years of complaints and aggressive advocacy by the Cornucopia Institute and organic dairy farmers, the USDA did what it should have done long ago: it got the largest private-label organic milk company in the nation, Aurora Organic, to agree to reform its farming practices. It also threatened to revoke Aurora's organic certification if the company did not follow through on these reforms during a one-year probation period.
Cornucopia and others have lobbed criticisms at Aurora for years, primarily for keeping its organic cows in feedlots against the letter and spirit of organic regulations that require the animals to have "access to pasture." Though this entire period, it should be noted, the Colorado Department of Agriculture and Quality Assurance International continued to certify the company's practices as organic and Aurora denied it was doing anything wrong.
According to the USDA complaint, however, the company did not have enough pasture for its cows and was bringing animals onto its farms that may have been improperly transitioned to organic production.
The media was all over the story, but here's a couple of things you might not know. Based in Boulder, Aurora Organic was backed by $18.5 million in venture capital funds from Harvard University's endowment fund and made a business selling store-labeled organic milk to retailers such as Costco, Wal-Mart, Trader Joe's, Target and Safeway. Despite the inordinate negative publicity, no retailer has stepped forward and dropped the company's milk, nor has Harvard or its alumni ever raised any questions publicly about this investment (made through Charlesbank Capital Partners of Boston).
The USDA Agricultural Marketing Service said in a press release it "will exercise increased scrutiny over Aurora's operations during a one-year probationary review period. If Aurora does not abide by the agreement during that time, AMS may withdraw from the agreement and could revoke the organic certification for Aurora's Platteville, Colo., plant."
In its own press release on the matter, Aurora said that it was increasing pasture at its Plateville farm to 400 acres -- a figure I found astounding because company officials had told me the farm had 2,900 acres of irrigated pasture and 12,000 acres of range land when I spoke to them for my book in 2005. What happened to the 14,900 acres of pasture they previously said they had?
It will graze 1,250 animals on those 400 acres, a herd that has been shrinking from the more-than 5,000 cows it once had at the Colorado facility.
Pasture wasn't the only issue. Under the new organic system plan (which every farm must have to get certified), Aurora must:
- Provide daily access to pasture during the growing season, acknowledging that milking cows is not a reason to deny access to pasture
- Reduce the number of cows to a level consistent with available pasture with agreed maximum stocking densities
- Eliminate improperly transitioned cows from its herd and not market those cows' milk as organic
- Agree to use the more stringent transition process in the regulations for animals added to its dairy herd.
This is the second major action by the USDA against an organic dairy company this year. In May, the USDA yanked the organic certification for the Vander Eyk farm - a giant operation in the central valley of California.
Is the USDA finally getting the message that consumers and organic dairy farmers want a high-integrity product? We hope so.