Lawsuit over Target’s milk raises bigger issue: Are large production farms ‘organic’?

milk aisle
REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/MinnPost photo illustration
Farmers with small dairy farms argue that when consumers see milk labeled and displayed as “organic,” they don’t expect it to come from huge dairy operations.

When is organic not organic? When it’s Target’s house brand milk, according to a lawsuit filed by an Indiana couple.

The class action suit, filed Dec. 14 in U.S. District Court, says Colorado-based Aurora Organic Dairy, which supplies Target, milked cows that didn’t live the organic life. The suit could lead to more. Aurora also supplies milk to Wal-Mart.

This lawsuit is the latest round in a battle about large producers versus small dairy farms, and the consumer who pays more for milk labeled “organic.”

The USDA rules don’t dictate the size of farms, just the way the animals are treated. The large producers argue that if the organic food business is going to be anything but a small boutique market, they’ve got to be allowed to use large scale processing. The small dairy farms counter that when consumers buy milk labeled “organic,” they picture it coming from small herds of cows that graze lazily on bucolic pastures.

The prize is a bite of the organic foods market that is growing while other segments remain stagnant. According to the Organic Trade Association, organic foods grew almost 21 percent in 2006. Organic markets worldwide, although immature, are expanding at a fast pace, too, with an average growth rate of 15 to 20 percent annually. By far the biggest market in Asia is Japan, according to a trade association report.

‘Willful violations’
The suit against Target dates back to 2005 when Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin organic watchdog group, was invited by a vendor to inspect Aurora’s farms. After looking the place over, Cornucopia complained to the U.S. Department of Agriculture that Aurora’s farms were really factories, according to Mark Kastel, Cornucopia co-director and senior farm policy analyst.

Following an investigation, Mark Bradley, associate deputy administrator of the National Organic Program of the USDA, wrote to Aurora last spring. “We identified willful violations of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990,” he wrote. “Due to the nature and extent of these violations, the NOP proposes to revoke Aurora Organic Dairy’s production and handling certifications.”

The letter went on with a list of violations, which the suit against Target repeats verbatim.

But the USDA didn’t pull Aurora’s certification. Instead, late last August the two came to an agreement where Aurora would address several key complaints. Aurora’s Platteville, Colo., facility would have to provide its cows daily access to pasture during the growing season, “acknowledging that lactation is not a reason to deny access to pasture,” according to the USDA.

The dairy had not given cows enough pasture to graze and also had diluted the herd by mixing in cows that had not been raised as organic calves, according to the feds. And its record keeping was not up to par. The USDA said Aurora had to improve on all counts.

“It was a sweetheart deal,” said Kastel, adding that Cornucopia plans to file suit against the USDA after the first of the year because of the agreement.

Other lawsuits
Target’s defense is that Aurora has at no time lost its organic certification.

“We are not aware of any ongoing investigations of Aurora Dairy Farms,” Target spokesperson Brandy Doyle said in a prepared statement. “It is disappointing that these types of lawsuits are attempting to override the USDA and regulate the organic industry and retailers with their own beliefs of what constitutes an organic product.”

Patrick and Caryn Hudspeth, the plaintiffs, argue they paid a premium for what they thought was organic milk between Dec. 5, 2003 and Oct. 15, 2007, well before the USDA and Aurora came to terms. The Hudspeths are asking for a jury trial.

Similar suits against Aurora have been filed in St. Louis and Denver.

“The suit against Target is the latest in a series of copycat lawsuits inspired by the false claims of activist groups engaged in a smear campaign against large-scale organic producers,” Aurora spokeswoman Sonja Tuitele said in an emailed statement.

Tuitele says the lawsuit will deter retailers from selling organic products, doing more harm than good to organic farmers large and small.

“To us, it is obvious that the activists’ real goal is to limit the supply of organic milk and drive up the price paid by American families. This, too, would harm consumers and slow the spread of organic agriculture,” she said.

At the Wedge Community Co-op at 21st Street and Lyndale in South Minneapolis, the largest single-site food co-op in the country with 2,500 customers a day, consumers made it clear they favored small producers over large, according to Barth Anderson, Wedge director of research and development coordinator.

The Wedge has never carried Aurora products, but it has carried milk from Horizon, whose parent company is Dean Foods. In 2004 the Wedge also began selling milk from Cedar Summit Farm, a small New Prague dairy.

“Our customers stopped buying Horizon,” Anderson said. “Cedar Summit swept the legs right out from under Horizon.”

The Wedge stopped carrying Horizon milk.

“Our clientele is the core of the core organic buyers,” he said. “If David can slay Goliath so easily, maybe the other Goliath needs to pay attention.”

Judith Yates Borger reports on legal affairs, science and other subjects. She can be reached at Judy [at] JudithYatesBorger [dot] com.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by John Olson on 12/21/2007 - 12:45 pm.

    Welcome to today’s seminar, “Is It REALLY Organic?” The questions for our panelists include (but are not limited to):

    – Lawsuits aside, how do you as a consumer know that any given product that is labeled “organic” is–in fact–“organic.” The short answer is as a consumer you don’t know. Oh sure, it may have a label on it and an inflated price to go with it, but as consumers, we don’t have the technical expertise or equipment to judge one way or the other.

    – As mentioned, is “organic” about the actual product being offered for sale and its content(s), or is it about the lifestyle of the producer and how the product is produced or raised?

    – Technology has (ahem) significantly changed since 1990. How can one reasonably try to regulate or enforce laws and regulations regarding organic foods that are approaching 20 years old?

    Would I like to buy organic? Absolutely! I would even be willing to pay a premium for those items, but I won’t do it in an environment where one can simply relabel, reprice and sell if they want to. In this battle, I do not trust the growers, the retailers that sell them, and I sure don’t trust the USDA to be the referee in all of this. Whether the courts can provide additional guidance remains to be seen.

    I’m not going to count my chickens until they hatch. (BTW, what *did* come first, the organic egg or the organic chicken?) 🙂

  2. Submitted by Derek Reise on 12/22/2007 - 02:37 pm.

    Great article. But I think two issues are being conflated. The issue doesn’t seem to be whether large-scale productions are automatically NOT organic. It’s whether the USDA properly enforces organic regulations against these large scale productions.

    The second issue is organic regulations aside, is it fundamentally better to have smaller operations? Is that better for the environment/quality of products/economy? I would argue YES.

    Small producers, whether they are organic certified or not, need to find a way to create and regulate standards beyond “organic.” This is probably outside the scope of government. If products like Cedar Summit milk can communicate to the consumer that they aren’t just organic certified, but they have better practices, are local, etc, the consumer is going to respond.

    One example, wouldn’t it be great if we were able to see what the carbon (and methane) footprint of one gallon of Cedar Summit milk is compared to Aurora’s. Or more simply, how many miles the two products have traveled to get to the consumer? (For us in the Twin Cities, New Prague is a bit closer than Colorado.)

  3. Submitted by John Olson on 12/22/2007 - 08:30 pm.

    Derek, I am not going to argue the benefit of what you propose. However, I would ask the same fundamental question of your small producer: how do I really know what I am buying here? Is this really organic?

    I’m sorry, but the “aw shucks, I’m just a little person making my living off the land” doesn’t totally fly with me. Its the product I am interested in. Not the person who raised/grew it.

  4. Submitted by Derek Reise on 12/24/2007 - 02:38 am.

    Oh yes, I agree it is vitally important to be able to have that organic label in which the consumer can place reasonable faith. That is many people’s first concern with groceries (including mine).

    I’m just suggesting that there be additional regimes of labeling/regulation on important questions BEYOND what is organic.

    If consumers have reason to care about the business structure (including size) of the producer, or how far the product has traveled, or what has gone into its production, or how the employees of the producer are treated, perhaps there are consistent ways to communicate these things to consumers. As we see with the organic standards, the difficulty is in the enforcement and verification.

  5. Submitted by Judith Scoville on 01/02/2008 - 11:31 am.

    John Olson asks whether “organic” is about the actual product being offered for sale and its content(s), or if it is about the lifestyle of the producer and how the product is produced or raised?

    UDSA certified organic means that the producer and the processor (if any) have followed the National Organic Program rules for organic production and processing. These rules include what inputs can be used, what methods of production are required, such as the requirement for pasturing of livestock that lies at the heart of the Aurora Dairy controversy, and a farm management plan that includes maintaining soil quality and erosion control. So it is the method by which the product is produced that makes it organic, not some identifiable difference in the product. Many believe that organically produced food is more nutritional and some studies have indicated that, at least in some products, this appears to be true. But increased nutritional value is not what is being certified in certified organic foods, but the means of production. The difference between organic milk and conventional milk lies not in whether or not the conventional contains hormone or BGH residues, but in how the milk was produced. Those of us who have been involved in the organics movement for years are very concerned about the industrialization of organics, not because of issues regarding farmers’ lifestyles, but because industrialization does not really conform to rules such as pasturing livestock and runs counter to the fundamental idea of the organic movement that healthy soil is the basis for healthy food, animals, and people.

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