Natural Foods Merchandiser

Aurora to fight lawsuit

Four lawsuits have been filed in Denver, St. Louis and Miami alleging that Aurora Organic Dairy sold conventional milk labeled as organic to consumers.

Aurora is planning to spend "a lot of money" to vigorously defend itself against the charges, said Marc Peperzak, the company's chairman and CEO. "There is absolutely no basis for claims we defrauded consumers by selling milk that isn't organic—none whatsoever," said Peperzak, who added that Aurora has continuously maintained eight valid National Organic Program certifications.

Boulder, Colo.-based Aurora operates four dairy farms in Colorado and Texas and, with more than 5,000 acres, is one of the largest organic dairy operations in the United States. Aurora provides private-label organic milk to retailers, including Trader Joe's, Wal-Mart, Target and Safeway.

The lawsuits revolve around a violation alleged in an April 16 Notice of Proposed Revocation issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to Aurora. Violation No. 8 charges that "from Dec. 5, 2003, to the present, AOD sold, labeled and represented milk as organically produced, when such milk was not produced and handled in accordance with" certain NOP regulations that cover organic production and handling requirements, including how livestock is transitioned to organic, what the cattle are fed and how they're cared for.

Peperzak said a consent agreement Aurora signed with the USDA on Aug. 23 invalidated those alleged violations. He also noted that the allegations, including violation No. 8, "are simply not true. They absolutely never happened. Our certifiers audited our operations throughout that period and found no violations."

As a result of the investigation that produced the Notice of Proposed Revocation against Aurora, the USDA also took enforcement action against one of Aurora's certifiers, the state of Colorado, which agreed to hire additional staff and attend NOP training programs.

The lawsuits against Aurora were filed in various jurisdictions last week, and were researched and organized by watchdog groups The Cornucopia Institute and the Organic Consumers Association. According to an attorney from one of the firms that filed suit, there are 36 plaintiffs in 30 states, which could be expanded to class-action lawsuits involving "anyone who ever drank Aurora milk."

According to the lawsuit filed in St. Louis, "Aurora's immense production of 'organic' milk has glutted the market, driven down prices and made it more difficult for small farmers who produce real organic milk to compete." Attorneys say the plaintiffs could ask for a share of Aurora's profits and ensure that Aurora follows organic standards in the future.

There is presently no timetable for when the lawsuits will go to court. Aurora has hired the international law firm Latham & Watkins to defend the dairy. "We're going to do everything to fight this smear against us," says Aurora's Senior Director of Communications Sonja Tuitele.

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