Natural Foods Merchandiser

Aurora Organic Dairy lawsuit hearing set

A hearing is scheduled Jan. 30 in Phoenix to consolidate nearly a dozen civil lawsuits filed last year against Aurora Organic Dairy. If the consolidation is approved, the lawsuits would be heard by a court in either Colorado or Missouri.

The lawsuits were organized by watchdog groups The Cornucopia Institute and the Organic Consumers Association, and were filed by consumers who allege that the milk Aurora sold to retailers and other private-label clients from late 2003 to 2006 was not organic. Plaintiffs' attorneys say their clients could ask for a share of Aurora's profits and ensure that Aurora follows organic standards in the future. Aurora denied the charges and will "vigorously" defend itself, said Marc Peperzak, the company's chairman and CEO.

One of the lawsuits also named Wild Oats, Costco and Safeway as co-defendants. Boulder, Colo.-based Aurora provides milk for Costco and Safeway's organic brands, and was also Wild Oats' private-label supplier until its August acquisition by Whole Foods Markets. In addition, a similar lawsuit was filed in early December against Target Corp. Target's Archer Farms' organic milk is supplied by Aurora.

The lawsuits revolve around a series of violations alleged in an April 16, 2007, 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 USDA National Organic Program 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 last August invalidated the 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."

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