Big dairy took a hit this summer, and the fight is likely to continue into the fall. Consumer and small-farm advocates said they have taken up legal challenges to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's decision allowing Aurora Organic Dairy to retain its certification after an investigation found 14 “willful” violations of organic standards.
“We were pleased the USDA investigation had reached a conclusion, even though it took two years to do that,” said Ed Maltby, executive director of an organization representing independent organic dairy farms in the Northeast. “But we were somewhat astounded that there was a consent agreement signed between USDA and Aurora Dairy that basically let them off the hook.”
Other industry observers stress that the USDA decision shows regulators are serious about protecting the national organic standards and are responding to complaints about suppliers, as in the Aurora case.
“It's very reassuring that the rules are being enforced,” said Jerry Dryer, a Florida-based dairy market analyst. “If anything, it ought to give consumers greater confidence in the product.”
Holly Givens, spokesperson for the Organic Trade Association, added that Aurora's size naturally attracted bigger headlines, while smaller dairies facing similar penalties likely went unreported by the media.
“The National Organic Program regulations are size-neutral, so to me, that's not so much a factor as the fact that there was a complaint made, an investigation conducted, and now there will be change,” she said. “That's a system that's working.”
Overshadowing the Aurora case is the larger issue of the USDA's inability to specify exactly what the “access to pasture” requirement in the federal regulations means.
“For the last four years, we've been lobbying USDA and everyone we can think of to get the pasture standards worked out and made understandable by certifiers, so that they can be enforced,” said Maltby.
Retailers do have a stake in the outcome of the case. Not only is Aurora the nation's biggest supplier of private-label milk, but organic advocates will continue to point to the case as an example of how big companies cannot necessarily be trusted to uphold organic integrity.
“It doesn't do anybody any good to have an organic seal out there that nobody can trust,” said Maltby.