Confined Cows? Aurora Investigated in 2017
It looks nice – Aurora Dairy’s aggressive branding starts right up front at the top of the landing page, and it broadly hypes organic implementation “up and down the supply chain.”
But as many consumers are learning, as with so many aspects of our national organic program, the realities can be very nebulous, with a lot of disinformation and confusion flying around, and quite a bit of gray area.
Aurora Dairy is a big operation – with thousands of cows, this producer, which has organic certification, supplies Walmart, Costco and other big chains with milk marked “organic” under the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) and sold based on this higher standard.
However, in May 2017, reporting by Peter Whoriskey at the Washington Post took an investigative approach to Aurora’s organic practices – what that reporting and investigation found was that only around 10% of cows were being pastured at a time, in practices that seemed not to meet USDA NOP standards.
The reporting at the time clearly lays out the requirements for pasturing organic cows, as does a contemporary complaint by Will Fantle of Cornucopia Institute that asks the NOP to look into Aurora’s practices:
“The photographic evidence, including a video, accompanying the story reinforces concerns we have expressed in past complaints concerning huge livestock dairies, including ones operated by Aurora,” Fantle writes. “The dairy herd animals are not being pastured, as required by law, rather they are largely confined to feedlots that facilitate the management’s preference for ease and frequency of milking. … As you know, there are provisions for the “temporary” confinement of cattle, primarily due to health or environmental factors. However, confining cattle in order to increase milk production, or because the size of the herd requires walking too far to access fresh pasture in a timely manner, or because of the need to produce stored feed, are not be among the enumerated legal exemptions from requiring ‘access to the outdoors/access to pasture.’”
Fast forward to September of that year, and you have industry publications reporting that the national regulator from the USDA gave Aurora a green light.
“Aurora Organic Dairy’s High Plains Dairy outside Gill, Colorado has been found to be in full compliance of organic rules by USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), on Sept. 27,” reported Wyatt Bechtel at DairyHerd Sept. 29. “The case is closed now and the complaint filed following the Washington Post has been shown to be invalid.”
So. case closed then, right?
Not so fast.
On September 28, Whoriskey filed a new report that asks what the USDA uncovered.
“The USDA has closed an investigation into Aurora Organic Dairy, a mega-dairy highlighted in a Post story earlier this year, finding no violations of organic standards,” he wrote. “But the agency did not say whether the investigation disproved the potential violations The Post uncovered last year, saying only that Aurora is currently operating in compliance with organic rules.”
Here’s the quote from Betsy Rakola, Director of Enforcement for the NOP:
“We determined that Aurora’s livestock and pasture management practices comply with existing USDA organic regulations and NOP policies,” Rakola said. “Therefore, the case is hereby closed.”
Clear as mud!
Other aspects of this skulduggery include chemical analysis of the milk, as reported in Washington Post, and Whoriskey’s finding that some unnamed observer suggested Aurora began to graze more of its herd after the 2017 season.
Whoriskey also points out astutely that “the extent of the USDA investigation is not known.”
Here’s the problem – consumers don’t have the time or the resources to be out policing ag producers.
They know that when they utilize the power of small family farms, they’re getting natural production, partly because the smaller scale makes it a common sense way to produce food.
But time and time again, as we’ve seen big agriculture scale operations, they’ve cut corners every single time.
The profit temptation is just too much. Companies skate by on deceptive practices that blur the spirit of the law and acquire organic certification in very dubious circumstances.
GTKYF caught up with Will Fantle April 23 to ask about the ongoing concern over Aurora’s practices.
“It’s difficult to get information on this,” Fantle said, citing “opaque” reports by USDA on the most recent complaint against Aurora in 2017. “It’s been very frustrating.”
Fantle said one big indicator is that Aurora does not seem to have sufficient grazing land to meet the organic standard. Most farmers following the law, he said, will need to keep cows to 2-3 per acre.
“Aurora’s density far exceeds that,” he said.
Fantle also described how the enforcement process looks, to many activists, a little like the fox guarding the henhouse.
“It’s like the FBI calling Tony Soprano,” he said of USDA regulatory oversight visits. “Of course, everything’s going to be buttoned up.”
Describing regulations as scale-neutral, Fantle admitted that the end result makes it harder to practice fully organic operations at a larger scale. Not holding bigger operators to the standard, he said, has been “catastrophic” for smaller family farms.
This week, as we see Aurora opening up a brand new 127,000 sq. ft. milk production and storage facility in Missouri, there’s still no confidence on the part of many impartial observers that the dairy really applies all NOP organic rules to its enormous herds.
GTKYF is vigilant about holding big ag to account and championing the interests of small family farms against moneyed special interests. Join us!