Watchdog group to sue USDA over organic dairy regulations

US - In a letter on Tuesday, the Cornucopia Institute informed the USDA of their intention to file suit in federal district court accusing the agency of ignoring the organic regulations, and the intent of Congress, by their failure to enforce the law.
calendar icon 21 February 2007
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The impending lawsuit is the latest salvo in a seven-year-long dispute between organic family farmers and the USDA.

"A wide cross section of the organic industry has repeatedly petitioned the USDA to crack down on an increasing number of industrial-scale factory-farms that are producing 'organic' milk," said Mark Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst at the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute.

At the center of the controversy are two major agribusiness corporations, Dean Foods and Aurora Dairy. Dean's Horizon brand and private-label milk produced by Aurora (marketed by Safeway, Wild Oats, Trader Joe's, and Wal-Mart, among others) have gained a dominant market share, estimated as high as 70 percent, by ramping up production on feedlot dairies milking as many as 2,000 to 10,000 cows.

"Organic consumers, when they pay premium prices, believe that they are supporting a different kind of environmental stewardship, are promoting humane animal husbandry, and are creating economic justice for family farmers," said Columbus, Ohio attorney David G. Cox, who is representing Cornucopia on other matters involving the USDA and organic certifiers. "When consumers find out that their milk has come from factory-farms in desert states whose scale of operations endanger the livelihood of hard-working families, and the milk is then shipped all around the country, they feel betrayed."

The giant farms have been accused of confining their animals instead of pasturing them as the regulations require, which Cox said constitutes a violation of law.

"There are five sections in the federal organic standards that relate to pasture and grazing. Taken together they leave little doubt as to what is expected of organic livestock producers," said Jim Riddle, of the University of Minnesota and former chair of the National Organic Standards Board. "It's no coincidence that except for the handful of mega-farms, all of the nation's organic dairy farmers, and most of the certifiers that inspect them, understand that grazing is required and operate their farms in accordance with the law."

"It appears that the USDA is looking the other way by allowing these confinement dairies to not provide pasture for their lactating cows," Riddle added.

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