political activism

Uh-oh, organic certification woes again

Received this press release from the Cornucopia Institute, one of the best corporate watchdogs for organic issues. What makes me want to weep is Organic Valley’s entry into the fray on the wrong side. OV products are my go-to when I can’t find local dairy products that come up to my humanely-raised standards. GMA and OTA don’t surprise me at all – the Organic Trade Association has not been on the side of consumers for a long time.

Contact: Mark Kastel, 608-625-2042

Food Manufacturers and Organic Industry Lobbyists Circle the Wagons
Defend Organic Scofflaw in Court to Protect Corporate Takeover of Organics

CORNUCOPIA, WI – Two powerful lobby groups in the food industry, The Grocery Manufacturers of America and the Organic Trade Association, recently intervened as friends of the court in a federal consumer class-action lawsuit accusing the nation’s largest supplier of private-label organic milk of consumer fraud. In what has been described as “the largest scandal in the history of the organic industry” USDA investigators, in 2007, found that Aurora Dairy had willfully violated federal organic standards. However, industry lobbyists are now concerned that convicting Aurora will set a dangerous legal precedent. Aurora bottles private-label organic milk for Wal-Mart, Costco, Target, Safeway and many other grocery chains.

In August 2007 Bush administration officials were widely criticized for overruling career staff at the USDA and instead of decertifying Aurora as staff had recommended, banning it from organic commerce, the corporate dairy was allowed to continue in business under a one-year probation. Now agribusiness lobbyists are concerned that citizens prevailing in court, alleging fraud, will set a precedent necessitating large corporations to incur added expenses to more carefully check the sources and credibility of their organic suppliers.

“Due diligence by food manufacturers and retailers is the heart and soul of what maintaining the integrity of the organic label is about,” said Mark Kastel, Codirector of The Cornucopia Institute, the farm policy research group that initially exposed the corruption taking place at Aurora.

In an internal document, the Organic Trade Association told its membership that, “OTA is taking this action in order to protect consumers’ access to organic products and the guarantee by organic farmers, producers and processors that their valid organic certificate fully demonstrates that their product is considered organic when marketed.” Lobbyists from the Grocery Manufacturers also were concerned that if the consumers prevail in this legal matter it would become, according to a copy written article in Sustainable Food News, “prohibitively expensive to continue developing organic products.”

“This type of rhetoric is just a stick in the eye to the ethical participants in this industry who make it a point, in their everyday course of business, to judiciously assure that their products meet not only the letter but the spirit of the organic law,” added Kastel.

Just like Aurora Dairy, Wal-Mart and Target were both found to have misrepresented organic products in the marketplace and were the subject of separate USDA investigations.

“Yes, it does cost more money to legally and ethically participate in organic commerce, said Will Fantle, Research Director for Cornucopia. “One of the reasons that big-box retailers are able to undercut their competition on price is they refuse to hire, train and adequately compensate management and frontline employees who know anything about the organic law.”

Aurora produces private label, or storebrand milk, for about 20 of the largest grocery chains in the United States.

In an ironic twist to this story Organic Valley, the nation’s second-largest organic milk marketer and a cooperative, is receiving criticism for its underwriting of a brief supporting Aurora’s position. The farmer-owned cooperative provided the financial support allowing the Organic Trade Association to file its amicus brief opposing the class-action lawsuit brought by consumers in over 40 states. The consumers allege that they were defrauded by the Colorado-based Aurora Dairy corporation.
> The news of Organic Valley’s involvement was a shock to some of its co-op members including Kevin Engelbert, a nationally recognized organic leader and dairy farmer from Nichols, New York. “Can this possibly be true? Has OV made a pact with the devil? I know OTA is controlled by the big money interests,” said Engelbert. “The 14 willful violations [by Aurora] prove that some organic certificates aren’t enough to demonstrate that a product is organic when marketed. The ‘organicness’ of questionable products must be challenged when necessary to maintain organic integrity.”

The Cornucopia’s Kastel said he was “flabbergasted” that a cooperative owned by family farmers would stick up for a corporation at the heart of the biggest scandal in history in the organic food industry and he characterized Aurora as a “bad actor” and “bad aberration” in the industry where consumers can generally trust the organic label.

“Aurora’s factory farm milk has injured the vast majority of Organic Valley’s own farmer-members by depriving them of markets for their milk and unfairly driving down retail pricing. Earlier this year the cooperative cut the pay price to its members and required its farmers to reduce production because of a milk surplus in the marketplace — a surplus that would be much smaller if Aurora legitimately managed its dairy cows like Organic Valley’s ethical dairy farmers,” Kastel added.

Cornucopia analysis, and USDA research, suggests that as much as a third of the nation’s organic milk supply comes from giant factory farms. Another organic factory farm operator, Dean Foods, the country’s largest milk marketer, and an OTA and GMA member, has been widely criticized in the organic community for procuring much of its milk for its Horizon brand from mega-dairies allegedly breaking the same rules as Aurora.

“If you connect the dots here you have to wonder why the management at Organic Valley is getting into bed with Aurora, Dean Foods and the most powerful lobbyists representing corporate agribusiness,” Kastel lamented. “Not only would Organic Valley membership benefit from Aurora being banned from organics, but if the lobbyists concerns are true, and some of the largest corporate players that have been playing fast and loose with the rules decide to exit the organics, that will only pump up their brand’s market share.”

The friend of the court brief, opposing a lower court ruling, which was funded by Organic Valley, expresses fears about a precedent should consumers be compensated for any fraud committed by Aurora. Melissa Hughes, an in-house lawyer for Organic Valley, told the editor of Sustainable Food News, that if the appeal is upheld “it could have vast implications on retailers, processors, handlers, and ultimately consumers.”

Analysts at Cornucopia strongly refute the contention that the Aurora matter would leave all organic marketers open to tort complaints by consumers. “Obviously, there is strong evidence for these consumers to believe they were defrauded by Aurora and the supermarket chains,” Kastel said. “This is an exceptional situation not indicative of the industry as a whole.”

Kastel cited the fact that Cornucopia sent certified letters to every one of Aurora’s retailer customers informing them that the reputation of their store’s label was at risk and encouraging them to take action. Only two marketers, the Publix supermarket chain in Florida and United Natural Foods International, the largest organic food distributor in the country, did the due diligence necessary and switched suppliers.

“The organic certification documents alone are not enough if evidence is brought to a marketer’s attention that some kind of improprieties are taking place,” Fantle added. “There is always the possibility that collusion or incompetence has taken place on the part of the supplier, certifier or the USDA.”

A comprehensive investigative story that appeared in the pages of the Washington Post referenced the Aurora matter, and a cozy relationship between the powerful Washington lawyer and lobbyist for Aurora, Dean and the OTA, and the former director of the organic program at the USDA. Alleged malfeasance at the Department has sparked the interest of Congress and an expanded investigation is currently taking place by the Office of the Inspector General at the USDA.

“Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 charging the USDA with preventing fraud; protecting the interests of ethical industry participants and consumers,” observed Cornucopia’s Kastel. “The obvious allegation here is that the regulatory branch, the USDA under the Bush administration, failed to properly enforce the law. It is appropriate for citizens who feel they were defrauded to seek a judicial remedy,” he added.
– 30 –


When the nation’s largest organic milk producer Aurora dairy, with five “factory style” farms, in Colorado and Texas, each milking thousands of cows, entered the marketplace in 2004 they proudly stated that they would make organic milk more “affordable.” What they didn’t tell their customers was that their products would be more affordable, allowing them to undercut competitors in the marketplace, because they wouldn’t go to the expense of meeting the strict federal regulations governing organic marketing.
> In 2007, after investigating legal complaints filed by Cornucopia about Aurora’s organic livestock practices, USDA staff concluded that Aurora had “willfully violated” 14 tenets of federal organic regulations. Aurora was found by federal investigators to have been illegally confining their cattle to feedlots, brought in conventional cattle that could not comply with organic regulations and, most seriously, selling milk labeled as “organic” that did not meet the legal requirements.

In its formal letter to the company, USDA staff at the National Organic Program stated: “Due to the nature and extent of these violations, the NOP proposes to revoke Aurora Organic Dairy’s production and handling certifications under the NOP.”

But the powerful Washington-based lobby of Covington in Burling, representing Aurora, worked with the Bush administration officials at the USDA to instead allow the $100 million corporation to continue in the organic business with a one-year probation and some modest changes to their operations

The “sweetheart” settlement between Aurora and the USDA provoked a consumer led effort to seek justice in federal courts. Nineteen separate class action lawsuits were brought against Aurora and several national grocery retailers selling Aurora’s suspect organic milk including Wal-Mart, Target and Safeway. The lawsuits claiming consumer fraud were eventually consolidated into a single case in the federal district court in St. Louis. Earlier this year, federal court judge E. Richard Webber dismissed the lawsuit on procedural grounds. An appeal has since been filed seeking to bring the merits of the lawsuit, which have not been heard, back before the court.

“OTA’s action, apparently backed by CROPP [Organic Valley], infuriates me,” said Kevin Engelbert. “I hope every person and organization that belongs to OTA drops their membership immediately.”

The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit farm policy research group, is dedicated to the fight for economic justice for the family-scale farming community. Their Organic Integrity Project acts as a corporate and governmental watchdog assuring that no compromises to the credibility of organic farming methods and the food it produces are made in the pursuit of profit. The largest portion of its funding comes from individual members, mostly family-scale organic farmers. They can be found on the web at http://www.cornucopia.org.

political activism

Why am I not surprised that the representative of the development company who is planning to build a large apartment complex two blocks away could not name even one specific example of sustainable/green building or landscaping in their many past projects?

I mean, the guy couldn’t even come up with an easy plausible lie like plant more trees, or use energy-efficient windows. He said something about making the walls six inches thick instead of four inches thick and wandered off-subject for a while hoping to distract me. But he didn’t. I tried to rephrase the question as “green” instead of “sustainable” and he began scoffing at the phrase “green building” meaning all kinds of vague things so I nailed him again to give me one specific example. He could not.

The issue was so far off these people’s radar that they didn’t even have a damned bluff prepared.

Holy cow, they’re planning a huge apartment complex two blocks uphill from my house. Guess I’d better start howling to my local gummint officials.

political activism

Yikes, CFSA reported that HR 2749 was likely to pass today. I don’t know why people can’t understand that the same rules that are good for industrial food safety can’t be applied to small farmers and food producers without killing them. Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Didn’t any of these folks read The Omnivore’s Dilemma? Apparently not.

So I hope that this won’t totally kill the farmer’s market movement. It was a beautiful thing while it lasted. Call and email your senators and ask them to fix this problem before the Senate votes on it.

Anyway, this is supposed to be my journal. I gave up being a food politics writer, right? But it’s a part of life.

I bound three books today and one yesterday. Woo-hoo! I’m going to borrow a camera tomorrow and take photos. I also designed and printed some business cards on my wonderful cheap Epson Stylus CX8400 printer.

Better wrap this up, there’s some loud thunder, and the battery on this laptop is dead as a doornail.

Local food, political activism

HR 2749 defeated, but not dead

Received this email from Carolina Farm Stewardship Association today. My disappointment? My N.C. rep is not on this list. Miller voted for the last b.s. food “safety” bill too. Whenever I write to him about agricultural issues, he replies that he is not on the agriculture committee. Well, by God, he eats, doesn’t he? If he is from North Carolina, then he ought to be interested in agricultural issues.

This is why I am leaving the Dems. They definitely don’t always get it right, especially when it comes to food. The appointment of Monsatan henchmen to important food posts clinched the party desertion for me. The Democrat Party is too happy to wallow in the corporate slime.

Not that I’ll ever, ever, ever be a Repub. But I do recognize a few of these names as Republicans, which shows that sometimes, rarely, but sometimes, they DO get it right.

Dear CFSA members:

HR 2749, which did NOT have the Kaptur-Farr language CFSA supported that would have provided better protections for small and organic farms, was defeated today. Thanks to Reps. Heath Shuler, Howard Coble, Virginia Foxx, Walter Jones, Patrick McHenry and Sue Myrick of NC, and Reps. Barrett, Brown, Inglis, and Wilson of SC, for voting against the legislation. If one of those folks is your representative, please feel free to thank them. Your calls, emails, and our work educate our legislators made an impact—without those 10 votes, HR 2749 would have passed.

The bill is not dead. It was brought to the floor under a special rule that required a 2/3ds majority to pass the bill where the vote was both on the question of having the vote under 2/3ds majority requirements and on the underlying bill. So now the bill can be brought back up under “regular” rules, which means that there will have to be an opportunity for amendments on the floor. Or it could be brought back under special rules, but obviously they’ll have to make a few changes to get the extra few votes they need. If it were to come back under either scenario, that would be a chance for our community to influence positive amendments. When, and whether, there’s another vote is anyone’s guess right now.

Both NC Senators are on the Health, Education, Labor Committee, which has jurisdiction over food safety, and I know personally that the offices of both Senators are concerned about supporting small and sustainable farms. We should take advantage of the opportunity to exert our influence on them.

political activism

Election Commentary

As much as I want them to definitely call North Carolina for Obama ASAP, wouldn’t it be totally cool if we were the ones to put him over the top?

I’m so psyched about Kay Hagan, who is my state senator and will be a fantastic US senator, whupping Liddy Dole that I’m as excited about that as anything. I was so sick of coming home to an answering machine full of messages telling me that I’m a do-nothing godless unAmerican. When Liddy got so desperate that she put out that incredibly slimy “godless” commercial about Kay, I would have been very upset if that had not backfired. That was so unbelievably low, and I’ve lived through quite a few of the nastiest Senate campaigns according to anybody, having endured 20+ years of Jesse Helms.

Deception should not pay, and I’ve been sorely disappointed that it does in this country. At least this time it did not.

My mother, who has always been a good Democrat until she came under the influence of an extremist right-winger preacher and, unfortunately, my brother and his wife, loves Liddy Dole. I think that she is entranced by the fact that she is an older woman. She also subscribes to the county newspaper, which is so far right that they regularly run Ann Coulter’s column as their main editorial. My sister and I get quite frustrated, and Mama won’t tell any of us how she votes any more, but I’d be willing to bet that she voted for Obama and Dole. This would be in keeping with my family history – my father once voted for Mondale and Helms.

North Carolina is complicated. We elect Democrats in the state government at the same time we elect Republicans to the federal government, and vice versa. I don’t know why we’ve been painted a red state (because of Jesse’s long success, maybe?) but from my observation, we’ve always been purple.

Looks like we might have a female Democrat governor, too.

I wasn’t playing the drinking game tonight because I’m sitting here alone, but I’ve heard “historic election” enough times to get a good buzz on if I had been.

Hope I’m not devastated in the morning like I was in 2000, but I think that it might be safe to go to bed with a book.

11 pm, with laptop in bed: Virginia just went for Obama. I love Virginia.

Now there is less than a 1000 vote difference in NC. Aughhh! What a nail-biter. I know, Obama will win, but it would be really groovy if he won in my state. Then there would be TWO Southern states! Okay, three if you count Maryland, but that’s a fuzzy call around here. And even Floridians know that Florida is not Southern.

Whee! President Obama! I wish that Miss Mary had lived long enough to see this day. (She was my babysitter, who lived into her 90s until this year.)

political activism

Close the COOL loophole

Comments due by September 30, 2008

The 2002 and the 2008 Farm Bills require retailers to disclose the country of origin of beef, lamb, pork, chicken, wild and farm raised fish and shellfish, perishable fruits and vegetables, peanuts and other commodities on their labels. USDA has issued an interim final rule implementing Country of Origin Labeling (COOL), available here: http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELPRDC5070926. The rule will become effective on September 30, 2008 which is also the deadline for comments.

COOL is an important tool for consumers. It allows consumers to choose U.S. produced meats, produce and nuts. The COOL rule, however, provides a vast loophole. It specifically exempts covered commodities found in “processed” food items. The processing loophole is available for foods that have been cooked or marinated or cured or simply when they have been combined with other covered commodities. Excluded, for example, are roasted peanuts, marinated pork loin, salad mixes, fresh fruit cups, dried fruits and vegetables, smoked or cured ham and bacon.

This exemption excludes a significant portion of the foods consumers bring home from their grocery stores on a daily basis and it compromises a consumer’s right to know the origin of the foods they are buying and consuming.

Tell USDA to close the COOL loophole.

There are several ways to submit your comment:

  • You can submit your comment directly from the Food and
    Water Watch website:
    http://action.foodandwaterwatch.org/campaign.jsp?campaign_KEY=25598, or

  • You can submit your comment directly to USDA at their
    website: http://www.regulations.gov/search/index.jsp
    (Check the box: “Select to find documents accepting comments or
    submissions” and search for “country of origin labeling”, or

  • You can fax your comment to USDA at (202)354-4693, or
  • You can mail your comment to the address below.

    Comments should be addressed to:

    Country of Origin Labeling Program
    Room 2607-S
    Agricultural Marketing Service, USDA
    Stop 024
    1400 Independence Ave. SW
    Washington, DC 20250-0254

    (Received via the Slow Food DC listserv, a highly informative source of food news!)

  • political activism

    Which came first, the rooster or the egg?

    Just got back from the City Council meeting, where a lot of people, including my bud Anne-Marie and Billy the Blogging Poet, spoke on behalf of a revised ordinance to lessen the restrictions on setbacks to keep chickens and beehives in the city limits. It also put into place some reasonable restrictions that weren’t in the original ordinance, such as fencing and a no rooster rule. I sort of expected that the foodie homesteady kind of urban citizens would step up, but what surprised me was the lack of serious opposition and the willingness of the City Council to go even further in amending the ordinance to grandfather in people who were already raising chickens and roosters and bees.

    Billy brilliantly brought up his chicken tractor, which no one had mentioned as an alternative to a stationary coop, and Mike Barber took particular interest in that.

    Dianne Bellamy-Small raised herself in my esteem considerably tonight. She and Trudy Wade and seemingly everyone else were interested in saving the roosters already in place. But, as Trudy said, how do you tell whether the rooster was already there prior to tonight’s vote? A variation on an age-old philosophical question that no one still has an answer for.

    The whole she-bang proved once again that food issues are and should be non-partisan.

    And I gotta tell you, if roosters are banned, I can live with that, but the noise from little bored yappy dogs is just as annoying to some people as roosters crowing are to others. Where do you draw the line? If noise bothers you that much, you should probably either live WAY out in the country or do what I do: wear ear plugs.

    God, little victories like this make me hopeful for democracy.

    political activism

    Barack discusses food and farm bill

    I received this article through the Slow Food DC email list, which is a terrific source of information about food and ag issues. The source is North Coast Journal, and while it seems to highlight Barack’s chili recipe, first it gives a very clear and concise summary of Obama’s plans and opinions about national food and ag policy. Here are a few Q & A’s from the article:

    Chef Ari: You voted for the Farm Bill, despite the enormous subsidies it provides to wealthy farmers. Why?

    Barack Obama: The Farm Bill has many positive provisions, in particular, an increase in federal funding for the development of renewable fuels, which will help reduce our nation’s dependence on foreign oil. The legislation provides an additional $10.3 billion for nutrition assistance programs, such as food stamps and school lunches.

    Although the Farm Bill is far from perfect, I support the legislation because it recognizes the important role of America’s farmers and ranchers, and the need to develop our rural economy. It is regrettable that John McCain [who voted against it] does not agree.

    While the Farm Bill does lower significantly the income limits of farmers eligible for subsidies, it doesn’t provide as much reform as I have advocated.

    As president, how would you work to hogtie this piece of runaway pork?

    In part, this is due to the disproportionate role that lobbyists play in the legislative process. As president, I would work with farm state legislators to pass additional reforms to reduce wasteful subsidies.

    Small farms that market to local communities are vital components of healthy local food systems. What policy initiatives would you propose to strengthen local food systems?

    As president, I would implement USDA policies that promote local and regional food systems, including assisting states to develop programs aimed at community supported farms. I also support a national farm-to-school program and am pleased that the Farm Bill provides more than $1 billion to expand healthy snacks in our schools.

    See the article for the rest…

    political activism

    Politics as usual or change for the better

    I’m back! What a whirlwind of inspiration THAT was. But, for right now, I’m so very sorry, but it is necessary for me to dip briefly into politics, just to get it out of my system. You see, I live in North Carolina. Tomorrow’s primary will be the first time we’ve had any influence over the Democratic nomination since I’ve been able to vote.

    Which means, of course, that we’ve been bombarded with phone calls. Let’s not even talk about turning on the TV – it probably won’t happen while I’m awake for at least the rest of the year. I do have an answering machine (I know, you young’uns have “voice mail,” and I also still have a computer with a floppy disc drive and a phone that attaches to a wall, so sit down) so I can screen the calls. One of the great things about leaving the state this weekend was not listening to the phone ring. I did get to answer a poll, which gave me a little tingle.

    Anyway, I’d just like to say that if ever I had been inclined to vote for Sen. Clinton, those inclinations would be stomped deader ‘n hell right now. Today a former Clinton supporter told me that he’d been turned away by her idiotic gas tax idea. Personally, my bugaboo has always, always, always been lack of manners and negative campaigning, and, I gotta say it, OUTRIGHT LYING.

    My favorite columnist (since the great Molly Ivins passed away) is now Gail Collins of the NYT. Gail doesn’t suffer a fool gladly, and pretty much parcels out the comeuppance to anyone who deserves it, which let’s face it, includes everybody in the whole damn campaign and politics in general. Here’s an excerpt from her column on Saturday:

    “Obama believes voters want a sensible, less-divisive political dialogue, that the whole process can become more honorable if the right candidate leads the way. Hillary really doesn’t buy that. She has principles, but she doesn’t believe in principled stands. She thinks that if she can get elected, she can do great things. And to get there, she’s prepared to do whatever. That certainly includes endorsing any number of meaningless-to-ridiculous ideas…

    “On Tuesday, root for the Democrat whose vision of the political process comes closest to matching your own. And I do not want you to be swayed by the fact that Hillary and Barack are finally having a policy debate, and it’s about the dumbest idea in the campaign.”

    I keep hearing from Clinton supporters that the political process is dirty, and you have to get ugly to win. But if that’s the way it is, then we are very, very lucky, BECAUSE we can change it. It’s up to us. Vote for a different way of thinking about politics tomorrow. Vote for Obama.