USDA dismisses complaint filed against Aurora Organic Dairy

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COLUMBIA - The United States Department of Agriculture dismissed a complaint filed this week against the Aurora Organic Dairy company, which is currently building its second milk plant in Columbia.

The Colorado-based company switched from conventional to organic in 2003, and has since been producing organic milk and butter products to U.S retailers. 

The complaint was filed by the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin based public-interest group.

The group requested USDA officials look into the company's farming practices, claiming it was not following organic standards. 

"In the last two years we've flown over a couple dozen of these giant industrial operations, including two dairies owned by Aurora. In most cases, there were no dairy cows out and one there was 10 percent of the cows out in the Aurora facility," Cornucopia Institute Co-director and Senior Farm Policy Analyst Mark Kastel said. 

Kastel said this wasn't the first time the group filed against Aurora Dairy, saying they've filed more than four complaints over the past 10 years. 

Over the past few months, the group has worked with the Washington Post, who included evidence of its investigations in an article published on May 1.

"That evidence included laboratory testing that indicated the nutritional components of the milk were not reflective of cows that were grazing. The test results were very similar to the nutritional components in a control group of conventional milk," Kastel said. 

Kastel said the group filed their most recent complaint after the Washington Post published its article. 

The USDA followed through with a investigation on the complaint and on September 27, sent a letter to Aurora Dairy outlining its investigation on the case. 

The letter said the National Organic Program conducted a detailed review of the company's records as well as an on-site audit, which included interviews with the Colorado Department of Agriculture, who oversees Aurora Dairy. 

The audit focused on requirements like "livestock grazing" and and "quantity of feed."

"Based on NOP’s investigation of the allegations, we determined that Aurora’s livestock and pasture management practices comply with existing USDA organic regulations and NOP policies. Therefore, the case is hereby closed," Director of Compliance and Enforcement for the National Organic Program Betsy Rakola said.

Director of Communications for Aurora, Sonja Tuitele said the company isn't conducting media interviews at the time, but pointed us to the press release they sent out shortly after the NOP concluded its investigation.  

“The NOP confirmed what we have known all along: that Aurora Organic Dairy is a 100% organic company. Their investigation included a thorough review of our facilities, our grazing practices and the records we maintain to document compliance with the organic rule,” Marc Peperzak, Aurora Founder and CEO said in the release.

Kastel said despite the dismissal, they still have questions.

"We filed a Freedom of Information request as soon as the USDA dismissed the complaint. They say they followed up with a site visit, we want to know whether that was an unannounced visit or they made an appointment," Kastel said.

Kastel said the group will continue to investigate the company's organic methods in the future.

"Sometime in the future, in 2018 or 2019, there will be a new plant code for Columbia, and we'll look for that when we're trying to identify the good milk and the bad milk out in the market," Kastel said. 

Tuitele said the company expects Columbia's plant to be operational by early 2019.

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