USDA closes investigation into a massive organic farm in Colorado — but what did it check?



The USDA has closed an investigation into Aurora Organic Dairy, a Colorado-based mega-dairy highlighted in a Washington Post story earlier this year, finding no violations of organic standards this year.

The agency did not say whether it looked into the potential violations The Post had uncovered last year, however, saying only that it is currently operating in compliance with organic rules.

“We determined that Aurora’s livestock and pasture management practices comply with existing USDA organic regulations and NOP policies,” Betsy Rakola, the director of enforcement for the National Organic Program at USDA wrote in a letter to Aurora. “Therefore, the case is hereby closed.”

The closure of the case was blasted by the watchdog group that filed the official complaint who have long criticized the USDA for lax enforcement of organic standards. The extent of the USDA investigation is not known other than that it included a visit to the farm and a review of some records.

“Federal regulators believe Aurora, and other large members of the industry lobby group Organic Trade Association, are ‘too big to fail,’ said Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute, which filed the official complaint that set off the investigation after the Post report.

The Post reported in May that on repeated visits to the dairy last year, most of the cows were not grazing as required by organic rules. In addition, chemical analysis of the milk showed that it was more like conventional than other organic brands.

The Post also reported that inspectors who certify Aurora’s dairy as “USDA Organic” conducted their annual audit last year in November, well after grazing season – a breach of USDA inspection policy. That means those inspectors would not have seen whether the cows were grazing as required.

Officials from Aurora Organic Dairy, which has supplied organic milk for brands sold at Walmart, Costco and Target, touted the closure of the investigation as vindication of its practices.

“The NOP confirmed what we have known all along: that Aurora Organic Dairy is a 100 percent organic company,” said Marc Peperzak, founder and CEO of the company. “We’ve confronted false criticism with facts by fully and transparently cooperating with this enforcement process, and this outcome clearly validates our organic certifications.”

Beginning this spring, following the Post story, Aurora started to graze much more of its 15,000-cow herd, according to a person who lives in the area around the dairy who declined to be identified for fear of angering the company.

On Wednesday, The Post asked Aurora and the USDA for records that would prove that Aurora had complied with regulations last year. Aurora has declined to say whether the USDA checked records from last year or to forward any records that might have proved they were in compliance last year. The USDA has not responded to the request.

The Post story reported that during visits to Aurora’s High Plains complex across eight days last year, signs of grazing were sparse, at best. Aurora said its animals were out on pasture day and night, but at no point during those visits was any more than 10 percent of the 15,000 cow herd out on pasture. A high-resolution satellite photo taken in mid-July by DigitalGlobe, a space imagery vendor, showed a typical situation – only a few hundred on pasture.

The USDA’s Rakola said the Post photographs, visits and chemical testing did not prove violations.

“The photographs and observations referenced in the news article, while reviewed as supporting information, did not provide sufficient evidence to substantiate such violations,” Rakola said in the letter.

Consumers pay roughly twice the price for “USDA Organic” milk believing, among other things, that the cows that produce it are allowed to graze during grazing season.



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