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Aurora Organic Dairy signs consent agreement

Aurora Organic Dairy has agreed to make changes to its operations in response to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's proposed revocation of the dairy's organic certification.?

According to Barbara Robinson, deputy administrator with the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service and overseer of the National Organic Program, the USDA investigated Aurora for more than a year following complaints lodged by the nonprofit Cornucopia Institute. On April 16, the AMS sent Aurora a Notice of Proposed Revocation identifying 14 alleged "willful violations" of various NOP regulations.

The majority of the violations dealt with Aurora using cattle that had been inconsistently converted to organic under NOP regulations. In addition, the AMS alleged that between 2003 and 2006, Aurora violated various NOP rules regarding pasturing of cattle.

Aurora appealed the proposed revocation, and the result was a consent agreement signed by Aurora officials Aug. 23. Aurora Senior Vice President of Marketing Clark Driftmier said because the AMS agreed to "dismiss with prejudice" the proposed revocation, "no part of it is valid anymore," including the alleged NOP violations.

"The key thing is that document is no longer actionable," he said. "What we're really focused on is this consent agreement."?

According to the USDA, under the terms of the consent agreement, Aurora must file new organic system plans for its Platteville, Colo., and Dublin, Texas, dairy farms. Aurora operates four farms in Colorado and Texas and, with a total of 5,700 acres, is one of the largest organic dairy operations in the United States. Aurora provides private-label organic milk to retailers, including Wild Oats Markets, Trader Joe's, Wal-Mart, Target and Safeway.

The AMS detailed four major adjustments that must be made to Aurora's Platteville farm:

  • Providing daily access to pasture for lactating and dry cows during the growing season, which the AMS said "typically runs from May 1 through Sept. 30"
  • Reducing the number of cows to a level consistent with available pasture
  • Taking cows that are improperly transitioned to organic out of the herd, and not marketing their milk as organic
  • Agreeing to use the more stringent transition process in the NOP regulations for animals added to Aurora's dairy herds

In addition, for its Dublin farm, Aurora agreed to provide written agreements with cattle suppliers ensuring that the animals were properly transitioned to organic status.

NOP will conduct unannounced visits, inspections and audits of Aurora's facilities during a one-year probation period. If Aurora violates the terms of the consent agreement, it could lose its organic certification.

Driftmier said transformation is already under way at the Platteville farm. The dairy herd will be reduced from 2,500 animals to 1,250 within the next month, and in the future, all calves will be raised on the farm. The current reduction follows a thinning of the herd from 4,200 animals 18 months ago. The cattle will either be sold or sent to other Aurora farms. Aurora will also increase its Platteville pasture from 325 acres to 400.

The Platteville facility will also become a focal point of Aurora's organic dairy research and education efforts. Aurora works with Colorado State University professors and students, offering internships and scholarships, and recently donated $200,000 to the Organic Dairy Research and Education Farm at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

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