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Lack of Answers Sours Organic Dairy's Suspension

Lack of Answers Sours Organic Dairy's Suspension

Suspension of organic certification is a fairly involved process in the United States. The steps that lead up to shelving a company's ability to label its products “USDA-certified organic” can take months, though it rarely gets that far. Most producers are committed enough to the organic ideal to address any shortcomings as soon as they are found.

Suspensions are fairly rare and actual revocations even more so, though they do occur. One case of note involved a certification firm in Wisconsin accused of approving an “organic” bottled water, among other violations. Transgressors like this are largely seen as aberrations — small companies trying to take advantage of consumer trust.

The news surrounding the suspension of Vander Eyk Dairy, a giant, 10,000-head farm in California, is much more serious:

  • The suspension occurred May 16, although the news media only learned about it on June 6, when bloggers and activist groups posted the development on their websites.

  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the certifying agent, Quality Assurance International, cite confidentiality laws as the basis for not disclosing the news themselves.

  • Horizon Organic, the nation's largest organic dairy, received less than 2% of its milk from Vander Eyk Dairy for an unspecified number of years, up until December 2006, when it chose not to renew Vander Eyk's contract due to quality problems. Ironically, the dairy was named one of Horizon's “Exceptional Quality Award” winners in 2004.

It appears Vander Eyk was a troubled operation long before May 16. Bloggers determined the suspension stemmed from woes over record-keeping and cattle identification. The former certainly could not have just suddenly occurred; records don't just become slipshod overnight. A keen observer could have seen trouble as early as January 2005 when the dairy paid a $360,000 settlement to Hispanic workers after they filed complaints of unpaid overtime and related charges. The record suggests this was not a well-managed, conscientious business operating under organic principles.

The potential for trouble was there all along, too. Vander Eyk milked what is known as a “split” herd; that is, some were certified organic, while others produced conventional milk. What's dismaying is the idea that cross-contamination could easily have occurred at any point. With 10,000 cows, it's not difficult to imagine an underpaid, overworked employee opening the wrong gate, or serving conventional alfalfa to organic milk cows.

In the end, the system worked, but to what end? There exists a disturbing lack of transparency and disclosure here. Shoppers, paying nearly $4 for a half-gallon of organic milk because they believe it's better for them, their families and even the cows, will need to apply to the USDA under the Freedom of Information Act if they want to find out what happened. The way this story unfolded gives the entire organic dairy industry an eye blacker than a Holstein's hide, and will only fuel more suspicion that large-scale operators cannot sustain the organic ideal.

This type of secrecy is challenging to me as a reporter. But it's absolutely outrageous to me as a consumer.