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Aurora Dairy Challenge Fails

A federal judge in Colorado has thrown out more than a dozen class-action lawsuits filed in 2007 and 2008 against a group of defendants that included Aurora Organic Dairy, several retailers including Safeway, Wal-Mart and others who sold Aurora products, and one of the dairy’s organic certifiers.

The case alleged that Aurora and its co-defendants were committing fraud — selling milk that was not organic — after federal investigators found “willful” violations involving a number of organic regulations. The USDA ordered probation and strict remedies, but the dairy was allowed to retain its organic certification.

That probe in 2007 was the result of complaints filed by the Cornucopia Institute, the small-farm advocacy group that has been coordinating the fight against Big Dairy, which includes Aurora, the nation’s largest supplier of private-label milk products. As of today, the organization says it will work with the plaintiffs to appeal the judge’s ruling.

I am not going to debate whether Aurora set out deliberately to cut corners (remember this was around 2007, a boom year for organics, and for organic dairy in particular). The feds allowed the processor to retain its certification and to keep making milk, and that’s what the judge cited in his ruling:

“Irrespective of whether Defendant Aurora was meeting the organic standards established under the [Organic Foods Production Act] and [National Organic Program], Defendant Aurora was a certified operation, and was fully entitled under the OFPA and NOP to label, market and sell its products as organic.”

In fact, after the incident, a chastened Aurora launched a massive effort to publicize the contributions it had made to the organic community, and took additional steps (some of which were independent of the USDA settlement) to reduce herd sizes, open up pasture and set up research programs.

I’ll be the first to admit that nothing is perfect, and no production system is foolproof. Mistakes are made. But neither Aurora’s violations nor the Cornucopia Institute’s activities are going to resolve the fundamental issue at the base of this and all related disputes: How big can organic get before it becomes something else? Can the principles that created the organic movement grow in scale with consumer demand?

The questions go to the heart of the organic debate, and have not lost their relevance just because a single judge has issued his opinion. Consumers (and retailers, too) are entitled to a reasonable expectation that the products they are purchasing are unadulterated and authentic.