ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

Big Organic Bull

By Samuel Fromartz

The dust up over Aurora Organic Dairy's alleged misdeeds in the organic dairy business has kicked into full gear.

The latest missive flew out Tuesday, as one of  Aurora's certifiers, Quality Assurance International (QAI), said it did nothing wrong even though a farm and milk it certified were cited by the USDA in its Aurora complaint.

For those not following this sordid saga, the USDA had threatened to decertify Aurora in April, citing 14 instances of willful violations of regulations. Aurora then reached a plea bargain with the USDA last month that contained provisions for the company to stop selling some milk, remove some improperly transitioned organic animals from its operation and increase grazing rates for its herd. They are the largest producer of private-label organic milk in the nation.

Significantly, the plea  contained no admissions about the 14 allegations of wrongdoing: it only states that the company was fully certified (ie, the organic certifiers knew what was going on). And secondly, there were "inconsistencies" between its Organic System Plan and USDA regulations -- that is, between what it was doing and what it was supposed to be doing under organic regulations.

Meanwhile, the watch-dog (and attack-dog) Cornucopia institute that had first brought a complaint against Aurora two years ago added the certifiers to a new filing, alleging they should have known the company was skirting organic regulations. Aside from QAI, the Colorado Department of Agriculture also certified Aurora's facility.

Now QAI has pointed a finger back at Cornucopia, and indirectly at Aurora and the Colorado certifiers. It stated:

Contrary to the spin asserted by the Cornucopia Institute, QAI has not been accused of any wrongdoing by the United States Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) Agriculture Marketing Service (“AMS”), and there is no suggestion by the USDA that QAI did anything wrong in its certification activities.

In the complaint, however, the USDA did cite Aurora's Dublin, Texas farm that QAI certified, saying:

During the spring and early summer of 2006, AOD (Aurora  Organic Dairy) entered conventional dairy animals into organic milk production at its Dublin, Texas, facility before they completed the required one-year period of continuous organic management, which began sometime after September 30,2005, in willful violation of 7 C.F.R. § 205.236(a)(2).

So what is QAI's defense? One source tells me these animals in question had organic certificates from the Colorado Department of Agriculture and QAI had to accept them. As its press release states: "By law, QAI is required to accept all certification decisions of other accredited certifiers." In other words, the Colorado certifiers were to blame. But this defense amounts to turning a blind eye on wrongdoing rather than trying to correct it. Frankly, I expect more of certifiers.

Meanwhile, Colorado is pointing a finger at the USDA, with a state agriculture official telling Sustainable Food News ($) that "Some of those (organic) regulations lack a great deal of clarity.” Further, "If this doesn’t demonstrate the need for additional USDA organic dairy training procedures, I don’t know what does.” (Other dairy certifiers don't seem to have these issues).

So what does all this add up to? USDA alleged Aurora was breaking the law. Aurora only admitted its certified farm plan and practices needed to be reworked. QAI said it did nothing wrong. Colorado said the problem was with USDA regulations and training.

In short, every party involved in this mess sounds like a two-bit capo out of the Sopranos: "We didn't do nothin' wrong! It was da other guy!"

Hence, my picture of the bull above.

Image source: North American South Devon Association