Note: This article was updated on September 18 to clarify the current status of Aurora Dairy's organic certification and include statements from Aurora, as well as more details on the actions brought against the company in the past decade.
Aurora Dairy, based in Boulder, Colorado, has agreed to pay out $7.5 million to settle a lawsuit brought against it for misleading consumers about its organic milk. Rather than being raised on smaller farms, with cows grazing outdoors, as its labels imply and federal organic regulations mandate (at least the outdoor grazing part), Aurora's milking cows were confined to feedlots holding over 4,000 animals.
UPDATE: Back in 2005, the Cornucopia Institute filed a complaint with the USDA about Aurora's practices. That complaint was dismissed, but in 2007 Aurora was sanctioned by the USDA for 14 alleged violations of organic practices and placed on a one-year probation, rather than decertify the dairy. Aurora agreed to not sell the milk from a portion of cows as organic.
The current class auction lawsuit was brought about on behalf of consumers in over 30 states who, in the words of Cornucopia, "felt defrauded after purchasing private-label organic milk at a number of retailers that Aurora specialized in serving, including Walmart, Costco, Target, Safeway, and other large grocery chains."
Cornucopia explains the nature of the fraud:
The class action lawsuit, and subsequent settlement, centered on labeling, graphics and marketing claims depicting cows happily grazing on lush pasture, and in some cases family farm scenes, when in reality the animals were living short, stressful lives being forced to produce copious quantities of milk in the kind of filthy industrial conditions that organic consumers thought they were avoiding.
UPDATE: The settlement affirms that, concerns about marketing aside, all of Aurora's milk was correctly labeled and certified as organic since 2004 by USDA Organic Seal.
On that, Aurora notes:
Without exception, we have always produced organic dairy products without chemical fertilizers, synthetic pesticides, antibiotics and artificial growth hormones according to USDA organic standards. ... Aurora follows a strict set of guidelines for organic livestock operations and management. In accordance with USDA organic regulations, Aurora cows receive a diet of organic-certified feed, including pasture, grown without the use of chemical fertilizers or synthetic pesticides, and other prohibited substances. Without more than 8,200 acres of organic pastures for grazing, Aurora farms consist of free-stall barns, open housing and best-in-class milking parlors.
The settlement agreement admits no fault on either party's behalf.
Knowing Your Farmer Only Way to Really Know Your Food
The settlement points to a bigger issue regarding organic farming, brought recently into heated discussion following a Stanford study focusing on one small part of the benefits of organic practices.
That study, if you haven't been following the issue, strangely claimed that organic produce had no health benefit over non-organic even though pesticide exposure and a number of other factors many would consider to be influential on good health were markedly lower. It also overlooked many benefits of organic farming not related to individual health, which I argue that taken together probably outweigh individual health benefits.
The connection to this story: While organic labeling is a good thing—Cornucopia says the vast majority of organic dairies do provide the animal welfare benefits consumers expect—without actually knowing where your food comes from, doing a modicum of research on that, you cannot be entirely assured as to its provenance.
The fact of the matter is that even if Aurora had been allowing its animals outside to graze and was in compliance with that part of federal organic standards, the image of small dairies where the farmers know each animal individually and have a chance at raising them in a non-exploitative environment, often portrayed in the packaging of many large organic brands, is different than the reality. The labeling implies an idealized pastoral scene when the reality, even though technically organic, is essentially industrial.
The same can be said of massive monoculture fields of organic vegetables, shipped around the country. The environmental impact may still well be lower than in their chemically-raised cousins—in the case of oranges, for example, the impact of shipping the fruit was negligible in comparison to those of chemical fertilizer—but the image of the farm is still different.
Only if you know your farmer—and by know I don't even mean know on a personal basis however good that might be, just know specifically how they operate—can you really know where your food comes from and whether your idea of this matches the reality.