Natural Foods Merchandiser

Cornucopia files complaint against Horizon

In its ongoing battle with large-scale organic dairies, The Cornucopia Institute has filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture against Horizon Organic Dairy, owned by Dean Foods' WhiteWave division, arguing that Horizon violates the requirement that organic dairy cows have adequate access to pasture.

Cornucopia filed similar complaints against Horizon and Aurora Organic Dairy in 2005.

The new complaint alleges that Horizon's farm near Paul, Idaho, "does not provide sufficient pasture for [its] lactating herd numbering approximately 4,000-4,500 head, as well as the approximately 4,000 heifers and dry cows also located at this site." Cornucopia also complained that the cattle are grazed on oats that have gone to seed and are "not palatable at this stage of growth and [are] indigestible for dairy cattle." In addition, "staff from the Cornucopia Institute also observed no watering facilities providing needed water to animals out on the available pasture—something that would be a necessity for organic operations seeking to humanely manage their dairy herd while truly meeting the pasture standard."

Cornucopia also stated that the cows on Horizon's dairy farm in Kennedyville, Md., receive "only token pasturing at best." According to "expert testimony from a number of sources with intimate, first-hand familiarity with this operation …cattle have been prevented from accessing pasture during this growing season despite the presence of excellent pasturing conditions," including "lush pasture quality" and "weather perfect for grazing."

"We certainly believe all those allegations are completely without merit," said Molly Keveney, a spokeswoman for WhiteWave. "We work closely with our certifiers on an ongoing basis to make sure each dairy meets the USDA [organic regulations]. We've been very transparent in our practices," she said. "We are in complete compliance with organic standards today … and we want to push the organic standards to become even more strict," she said.

"There's two main issues right now that we're being very vocal on. One is our grazing policy. We've gone on public record a number of times in support of changes to the organic regulations specifically clarifying what the organic pasturing requirements are for ruminants," she said.

The other issue is origin of livestock, which was not addressed in the Cornucopia complaint, but was one of the reasons that Seattle-based PCC Markets, the nation's largest natural foods co-op, decided not to carry any Horizon products. Diana Crane, a spokeswoman for PCC, said some of its customers were concerned about Horizon's practice of selling its calves and buying back 1-year-old heifers.

"We believe it's preferable for animals born on an organic farm to be continuously raised as organic," Keveney said. However, she noted that any organic cow, whether born on an organic farm or transitioned over a 12-month period, meets the organic standards. "In September we'll begin raising our own organic calves at our farm in Idaho," she said.

Mark Kastel, cofounder of Cornucopia, confirmed that he "absolutely" is looking for any violations that prove that large-scale organic farms cannot, by sheer virtue of their size, meet organic regulations. "Our thesis is that large scale organic farming is an oxymoron—that you can't do this conforming to the letter or spirit of the law." He said the organic advocacy group would file suit in federal court if the new complaint were not adequately addressed.

Keveney expressed concern about the effects that actions like those undertaken by Cornucopia were having on the integrity of the organic seal. "The biggest danger here is that the industry is really being pulled apart."

PCC's ban on Horizon products may be seen as evidence of that. However, Crane said the decision was not a result of Cornucopia's actions. "We first started looking into this as part of our normal review of the category," she said. "We've had several members of our co-op write to us or call us about their concern and lack of confidence in how Horizon was raising their cattle. More and more, our shoppers are bringing that to our attention, and sales of Horizon were going down," Crane said. Because the category was up for review anyway, and since Horizon products account for only about 7 percent of the co-op's dairy sales, and locally produced dairy products were available, "it just made sense" to discontinue the products, Crane said.

"We're obviously disappointed that PCC is no longer carrying our products," Keveney said. "We're trying to be very transparent and educate as much as we can." She said Horizon wants to make sure that organic dairy farmers continue to have a market for their milk.

"We helped build this industry. We are not newcomers to the organic space."

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