Legal actions announced this week against the Aurora Dairy Corporation, headquartered in Boulder, Colorado, could dramatically impact organic milk supplies and prices paid to organic milk producers nationwide. Class action suits were filed in U.S. federal courts, in St. Louis and Denver, against the nation's largest organic milk marketer.
The suits are being brought by the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based watchdog group, and the Organic Consumers Association. The plaintiffs allege that from December 5, 2003, to April 16, 2007, Aurora Dairy labeled and represented milk as organically produced, when such milk wasn't produced and handled in accordance with the National Organic Program regulations.
This April, Quality Assurance International, USDA's accredited organic certifier, filed a notice of suspension for violating organic standards. After USDA officials had drafted a letter of proposed revocation, enforcement action broke down. Aurora Dairy was allowed to continue marketing organic milk, claim the plaintiffs.
"This is the largest scandal in the history of the organic industry," contends Mark Kastel of The Cornucopia Institute. "Aurora's actions have injured the reputation of more than 1,500 legitimate organic dairy farmers who are faithfully following federal organic rules and regulations," notes Kastel. "We cannot allow these families to be placed at a competitive disadvantage."
The suits seek damages from Aurora to reimburse consumers harmed by the company's actions. They're also seeking a federal injunction to halt the ongoing sale of Aurora's organic milk in the nation's grocery stores until it can be demonstrated that the company is complying with federal organic regulations.
Aurora provides milk sold as organic and packaged as private label, store-brand products for Wal-Mart, Target, Costco, Safeway, Wild Oats and others. It has five dairy facilities in Colorado and Texas.
The Organic Food Production Act was implemented by USDA in 2002. Certifying agencies, such as Quality Assurance International, "fulfill a responsibility under the organic law to protect the interest of farmers and consumers," notes Lisa McCrory, a certifier for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont. "The system is designed for organic inspectors to uncover problems and protect the public by shutting down farmers or processors if problems are discovered."