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Aurora Organic Dairy battles PR nightmare

An 18-month U.S. Department of Agriculture investigation of Aurora Organic Dairy may cost Aurora its organic certification, according to the industry watchdog group that launched the investigation. Aurora officials denied the claims.

Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst for the nonprofit Cornucopia Institute, based in Cornucopia, Wis., said two USDA sources, a "highly placed industry executive" and officials from Aurora's home state of Colorado told him Aurora would be decertified for "numerous livestock management improprieties on Aurora's facilities." He said he didn't know when the USDA decision would be announced, adding, "We understand that powerful political influence is being brought to bear on the USDA in an effort to delay or water down the penalties against Aurora."

In a statement issued Aug. 14, Aurora officials said: "We have been working cooperatively with the USDA for 18 months to resolve complaints made by Cornucopia Institute, and we are confident USDA will make a decision on the merits." Aurora spokesman Paul Raab said the dairy has no comments other than the statement.

USDA policy prohibits its officials from commenting on ongoing investigations. According to the Associated Press, officials at the Colorado Department of Agriculture who had seen a Cornucopia statement detailing allegations against Aurora said the statement contains "the usual inflammatory language used by some to discredit a legitimate portion of the organic industry."

Aurora, which provides private-label organic milk to retailers, including Wild Oats Markets, Trader Joe's, Wal-Mart, Target and Safeway, operates five farms in Colorado and Texas. Aurora's 5,700 acres of pastureland is certified organic by the state of Colorado and Quality Assurance International.

Cornucopia filed complaints in 2005 and 2006 with the USDA alleging that Aurora's cattle graze in feedlots rather than pasture, and that Aurora gets its cattle from a noncertified organic source.

"After personally inspecting some of Aurora's dairies in Texas and Colorado, we found 98 percent of their cattle in feedlots instead of grazing on pasture as the law requires," Kastel said. Aurora denied Kastel's claims. "All cows ? have well over 120 days of grazing per year," the statement said. The USDA's National Organic Program rules require that cattle have access to pasture, but don't stipulate for how long. Efforts are under way to establish NOP grazing standards.

"The consensus position of the dairy community, recommended to the USDA, is that new organic rules should require grazing for the entire growing season, but not less than 120 days," Kastel said. The growing season at Aurora's Colorado farms is 138 days, according to county statistics. The Texas State Historical Association reported that the growing season around Aurora's Dublin, Texas, farm is 238 days, and 182 days around Aurora's Stratford, Texas, farm.

Cornucopia also alleged that Aurora bought dairy cattle from a contractor in Greeley, Colo., that has never been certified organic. According to Aurora's statement, "The origin of all animals on our farms is completely documented and can be traced with an unbroken audit trail to a certified organic source."

Cornucopia's recent complaints are not the first it has filed against Aurora. According to a statement from Aurora, Cornucopia also alleged that Aurora and other large dairy farms are not organic. That complaint was dismissed by the USDA in 2005. Kastel has often spoken out against large-scale, national organic dairy operations, saying they are "seriously undercutting the price of milk brands that are supplied by local family farmers, placing their livelihoods in jeopardy."

Most of Cornucopia's supporters are small family farms. Kastel said 70 percent to 80 percent of Cornucopia's 1,300 to 1,800 members are farmers, and only "a handful" have more than 500 cattle.

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