Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Post probe finds flaws in USDA certification program for organic dairy farms, especially big ones

Aurora Organic Dairy’s High Plains complex in Greeley,
Colo., is home to 15,000 cows. (Screen shot of Post video)
An investigation by The Washington Post found major flaws in how the Department of Agriculture inspects the growing organic dairy industry, especially at large farms, to ensure that foods labeled as "organic" actually are so.

"The U.S. organic market now counts more than $40 billion in annual sales and includes products imported from about 100 countries," Peter Whoriskey reports. "To enforce the organic rules across this vast industry, USDA allows farmers to hire and pay their own inspectors to certify them as 'USDA Organic.' Industry defenders say enforcement is robust."

"With milk, the critical issue is grazing," he notes. "Organic dairies are required to allow the cows to graze daily throughout the growing season—that is, the cows are supposed to be grass-fed, not confined to barns and feedlots. This method is considered more natural and alters the constituents of the cows’ milk in ways consumers deem beneficial."

When the Post spent eight days last year visiting Aurora Organic Dairy’s High Plains complex in Aurora, Colo., home to 15,000 cows and one of the nation's biggest suppliers of organic milk, "signs of grazing were sparse, at best," Whoriskey writes. "Aurora said its animals were out on pasture day and night, but during most Post visits the number of cows seen on pasture numbered only in the hundreds. At no point was any more than 10 percent of the herd out. A high-resolution satellite photo taken in mid-July by Digital Globe, a space imagery vendor, shows a typical situation—only a few hundred on pasture."

"The milk from Aurora also indicates that its cows may not graze as required by organic rules," Whoriskey reports. "Testing conducted for The Post by Virginia Tech scientists shows that on a key indicator of grass-feeding, the Aurora milk matched conventional milk, not organic." Aurora dismissed the Post's observations as "drive-bys" and its tests as "isolated."

The Post also contacted inspectors who certified the farm as “USDA Organic,” finding that they conduced the annual audit well after grazing season—in November, Whoriskey writes. "That means that during the annual audit, inspectors would not have seen whether the cows were grazing as required, a breach of USDA inspection policy."

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