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The Washington Post: Why your ‘organic’ milk may not be organic

Bobby Prigel, owner of Prigel Family Creamery, leads cows to morning milking in 2015 in Glen Arm, Md. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

The High Plains dairy complex reflects the new scale of the U.S. organic industry: It is big.

Stretching across miles of pastures and feedlots north of Greeley, Colo., the complex is home to more than 15,000 cows, making it more than 100 times the size of a typical organic herd. It is the main facility of Aurora Organic Dairy, a company that produces enough milk to supply the house brands of Walmart, Costco and other major retailers.

“We take great pride in our commitment to organic, and in our ability to meet the rigorous criteria of the USDA organic regulations,” Aurora advertises.

But a closer look at Aurora and other large operations highlights critical weaknesses in the unorthodox inspection system that the Agriculture Department uses to ensure that “organic” food is really organic.

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

But the problems at an entity such as Aurora suggest that even large, prominent players can fall short of standards without detection.

With milk, the critical issue is grazing. 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.

But during visits by The Washington Post to Aurora’s High Plains complex across eight days last year, signs of grazing were sparse, at best. 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.

In response, Aurora spokeswoman Sonja Tuitele dismissed the Post visits as anomalies and “drive-bys.”

“The requirements of the USDA National Organic Program allow for an extremely wide range of grazing practices that comply with the rule,” Tuitele said by email.

The milk from Aurora also indicates that its cows may not graze as required by organic rules. 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.

Tuitele dismissed the tests as “isolated.”

Finally, The Post contacted the inspectors who visited Aurora’s High Plains dairy and certified it as “USDA Organic.” Did the inspectors have evidence that the Aurora cows met the grazing requirement?

It turns out that they were poorly positioned to know.

The inspectors conducted the annual audit well after grazing season — in November. 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.

“We would expect that inspectors are out there during the grazing season,” said Miles McEvoy, chief of the National Organic Program at the USDA. He said that the grazing requirement is “a critical compliance component of an organic livestock operation.”

Tuitele said: “We take these assertions very seriously, as we are a 100% certified organic producer, and our organic practices are the cornerstone of our operations.”

If organic farms violate organic rules, consumers are being misled and overcharged.

In the case of milk, consumers pay extra — often double — when the carton says “USDA Organic,” in the belief they are getting something different. Organic dairy sales amounted to $6 billion last year in the United States.

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