CORNUCOPIA, WIS: In an open letter published today and, addressed to USDA National Organic Program chief Miles McEvoy, The Cornucopia Institute accused the regulatory agency of abdicating its enforcement responsibilities. Cornucopia, an organic industry watchdog, charged that the USDA had allowed Dean Foods and its WhiteWave subsidiary to, allegedly, operate a giant factory farm dairy that has been illegally disadvantaging the nation's family-scale dairy producers.
The Cornucopia Institute also filed, on February 10, its third formal legal complaint alleging Dean/WhiteWave's giant industrial dairy, located in Paul, Idaho has continued to operate illegally.
"We're hoping that third time's a charm," said Cornucopia's Senior Farm Policy Analyst, Mark Kastel.
Prior complaints by The Cornucopia Institute have resulted in the decertification and/or downsizing of a number of other certified organic Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) in the organic dairy sector, milking up to 10,000 cows each. Cornucopia has suggested that Dean Foods, with its heavy investment in federal election financing and strong lobbying presence in Washington, has "indemnified" the agribusiness giant from judicious enforcement.
"Just as we have banks that have become 'too big to fail,' in organics we see Dean Foods and WhiteWave (recently spun-off in 2013 through an IPO on Wall Street), one of the largest industry participants and the kingpin in the powerful Organic Trade Association, repeatedly and successfully flashing their 'get out of jail free card' purchased by influence peddlers in Washington," Kastel explained.
Originally managing over 8,000 head of cattle and thousands of acres of land in an arid region of Southern Idaho, Dean/WhiteWave's dairy -- providing milk for the Horizon Organic label -- was accused by Cornucopia, starting in 2005, of confining cattle in pens and buildings instead of providing access to pasture and grazing as federal organic law requires.
Cornucopia claims that their use of these allegedly illegal techniques resulted in millions of dollars of "ill-gotten gains" by catapulting the Horizon label into not only the largest brand in the organic dairy sector, but the largest brand, by dollar volume, in the entire organic industry.
Although the dairy in recent years reduced the number of cows it was managing, and added, for the first time, some amount of pasture, it also increased the number of times the cows were being milked from twice a day to three and even four times a day.
"Properly managing an organic dairy farm by moving the herd to fresh pasture after each twice-per-day milking becomes more and more difficult as herd size gets larger," said Kevin Engelbert, a certified organic dairy farmer from Nichols, New York. "If a farm gets to the point of milking thousands of cows, 24 hours a day, the logistics of getting the herd from the milking facility to fresh grass, legitimately grazing -- as required by law -- becomes impossible."
Recent interviews with dairy staff by Cornucopia investigators suggest that, to promote extremely high levels of milk production, the Horizon farm management prevented the cows from being put out on pasture between some of the milkings, and when they were out, made sure their bellies were already full of high-production rations (TMR feed) eaten in the barn.
Meanwhile, a select group of "fresh, high producing cows," being milked four times a day, were being entirely confined until their production levels dropped.
The reported level of milk production from the herd supplying Horizon Organics is seen on conventional CAFO dairies, but is very uncharacteristic of legitimate family-scale organic dairies.
"The cows were either prevented from going out and grazing, or if they did go out on pasture they probably didn't eat much fresh grass but instead lay down and chewed their cud, digesting the ration already eaten in the barn," Kastel surmised.
The federal regulations explicitly require all livestock to have access to the outdoors and, specifically, ruminants (including dairy and beef cattle, sheep and goats) to have access to high quality pasture.
Cornucopia's Kastel explained: "There are regulatory provisions allowing a farmer to 'temporarily' confine animals if letting them out on pasture would jeopardize their health or cause environmental problems. But nowhere in the standards do they allow confinement because moving thousands of cows back and forth to fresh grass would cut into milk production."