Six civil lawsuits were filed between mid-October and mid-December against Aurora Organic Dairy, alleging the milk Aurora provided to supermarkets and other private-label clients from late 2003 to 2006 was not organic. Aurora adamantly denied the claims and will "vigorously" defend itself against the charges, said Marc Peperzak, the company's chairman and CEO.
One of the lawsuits also named Wild Oats, Costco and Safeway as co-defendants. 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 Market. In addition, a similar lawsuit was filed in early December against Target Corp. Aurora supplies organic milk under the Archer Farms brand for Target.
The lawsuits, which were filed in courts in several states, name various individuals as plaintiffs. At least two of the suits were researched and organized by watchdog groups The Cornucopia Institute and the Organic Consumers Association, according to a statement released by Cornucopia in mid-October. Aurora spokeswoman Sonja Tuitele said the "language is mostly the same" in all of the lawsuits, and noted the OCA has a notice on its Web site encouraging organic-milk consumers to file suit against Aurora.
Tuitele called the lawsuits a "smear campaign against large-scale organic producers" launched by "activist" groups. According to one lawsuit, "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." 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.
The lawsuit naming retailers that sell Aurora's milk "is a sign that the ?activists' have sunk to new lows," Tuitele said in a statement. "By dragging the retailers of organic products into a legal battle that questions the comprehensive way the organic industry is regulated, the activists will ultimately deter these retailers' interest in supporting organic certified products and tarnish their trust in the organic certification process."
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 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."
"There is absolutely no basis for claims we defrauded consumers by selling milk that isn't organic—none whatsoever," added Peperzak, who noted Aurora continuously maintained eight valid National Organic Program certifications.
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. Tuitele said Aurora's attorneys expect the lawsuits against the dairy will be consolidated into one multi-district suit sometime after Jan. 1, when a court date will be set.
Plaintiffs' attorneys say their clients could ask for a share of Aurora's profits and ensure that Aurora follows organic standards in the future.
Vicky Uhland is a Lafayette, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 1/p.14