More than a dozen factory farms producing dairy and meat products for stores nationwide engaged in widespread organic fraud for years as the USDA stood idly by, an agriculture industry watchdog said on Thursday.
A months-long investigation by the Cornucopia Institute discovered that 14 farms around the country producing so-called organic products have been defying USDA regulations, keeping animals tightly packed in facilities with no real access to the outdoors, while federal management routinely ignored pressure to investigate conditions.
The institute filed suit against those farms on Thursday and called on the USDA to remove the industry management body, the National Organic Program.
Organic fraud is "unconscionable," said Mark A. Kastel, Cornucopia senior farm policy analyst. "The job of the USDA is to oversee the certifiers and ensure that they are doing their job. It is quite possible that, in this case, there could have been a conspiracy and/or negligence that the certifier was responsible for."
After what the Cornucopia Institute called "years of inaction" by the USDA, the watchdog group conducted an independent investigation into the conditions of a number of farms currently creating products for labels that market themselves as humane, environmentally conscious, and economically fair.
None of them passed muster.
Current organic rules dictate that animals designated as organic must have their "health and natural behavior" accommodated, allowing cows to graze and chickens to roam. Among the farms named in Cornucopia Institute's lawsuit is Horizon Dairy, a grocery store staple that depicts a happy, animated cow as its logo; but aerial photographs taken during Cornucopia's investigation show that Horizon farms, as well as the "vast majority" of large-scale farms that label themselves organic, "had 100% of their animals confined in giant buildings or feedlots," conditions which violate federal standards for organic farms, the institute says.
Other well-known brands whose dairies failed to measure up in Cornucopia's investigation were Herbruck's and Organic Valley.
"The federal organic regulations make it very clear that all organic livestock must have access to the outdoors and that ruminants, like dairy cows, must have access to pasture," Kastel said.
With the organic industry expanding in response to increased desire for more natural products and humane treatment of animals, consumers are likely to feel deceived to learn of the real conditions on those farms, Kastel added. "Shoppers, who passionately support the ideals and values represented by the organic label, understandably feel betrayed when they see photos of these massive CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) masquerading as organic."
This is not the first time that Horizon, or other brands named in the suit, have been in trouble for skirting regulations. Some of its largest dairy providers are still being investigated by the USDA for "improprieties."
But federal oversight is still inadequate, often taking years to respond to complaints and review appeals from dairies that continue operating illegally in the interim, Cornucopia says—actions which diminish profits for legitimate farms nearby.
"The inaction by the USDA places thousands of ethical family-scale farmers, who are competing with a couple of dozen giant dairies, at a competitive disadvantage,” said Kevin Engelbert, an organic dairy farmer and former member of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), a citizen advisory panel. "Allowing these illegal dairies to continue to operate is a travesty and significantly undercuts the supply-demand dynamic that should be rewarding farmers in the marketplace and providing a decent living for our families."
The criticism against the USDA does not stop at inaction against illegal operators. The agency also restricted the oversight responsibilities of the NOSB and weakened rules for the use of synthetic ingredients in organic food production, Cornucopia says.
Many of those farms are denying that any impropriety exists. "A single photo doesn’t really tell us anything about a farm and its practices," Sonja Tuitele, a spokesperson for Aurora Organic Dairy, told the Washington Post. "Our records do indicate that all of our lactating cows at the Coldwater facility were grazing on pastures on May 17th. Since we don’t know what time of day this photo was taken, we can only assume this photo was taken outside of their daily grazing hours."
Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides and member of the NOSB, called the current situation "untenable."
He added, "Someone needs to take responsibility for the divide in this industry which has begun seriously undercutting the credibility of the organic label and the livelihoods of ethical organic farmers."