The Federation of Organic Dairy Farmers (FOOD Farmers) issued a blistering attack (pdf) on the USDA and Aurora Organic Dairy (AOD) Tuesday, criticizing the plea bargain they had reached settling 14 alleged violations of the organic regulations by Aurora. The charges were made in a publicly released letter to Acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner.
FOOD Farmers is a coalition of the three main organic dairy producer associations in the US, including the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Association, the Midwest Organic Dairy Producers Association and the Western Organic Dairy Producers Association (of which Aurora is a member).
The letter states:
We are extremely disturbed by the Consent Agreement between USDA and AOD for many reasons. It does not bring closure to this situation. If Aurora is guilty of these alleged violations and is allowed to not only continue in operation but to continue with no sanction ... they should be de-certified and fined to the full extent. Given the “nature and extent” of the alleged violations which continued over 3 ½ years, any fine of AOD should be the maximum amount allowed by law and AOD should not be permitted to ship organic milk for five years, in accordance with section 205.662 of the NOP regulations on noncompliance.
205.662(g) states that “In addition to suspension or revocation, any certified operations that: (1) Knowingly sells or labels a product as organic, except in accordance with the Act, shall be subject to a civil penalty of not more that $10,000 per violation.” The regulation does not say “may” but rather it says “shall” which would indicate that fines are mandatory. If Aurora is not guilty of the alleged violations, they should be cleared of any violation and confidence in NOP’s ability to enforce the organic standards will be restored.
The group stated that the agreement sets an "unacceptable precedent," since it shows that "major, multiple violations occurring over several years" can be negotiated away without penalty. Further, given the fact that smaller dairies have been de-certified for non-compliance, it can be viewed as "preferential treatment for a large-scale operation."
The statement is significant, not only because FOOD Farmers represent the vast majority of organic dairy farmers but also because it offers insights into the working of the organic market, regulations and USDA behavior in this case.
In another development, the Cornucopia Institute disclosed that Aurora has threatened to sue Cornucopia, the Organic Consumers Association and the Center for Food Safety for defamation for charging the company engaged in consumer fraud.
Expect more fireworks ahead.
- Samuel Fromartz