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USDA declines to investigate alleged violations at major organic farms

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Aerial photographs taken last summer of some of the largest organic egg and dairy farms in the United States showed few animals outside on pasture, but the USDA will not investigate whether these operations are violating rules for organic agriculture, officials wrote Tuesday.

The photographs of the 14 operations, according to the watchdog group that had them taken,  is evidence that these large farms were not really "organic." Under USDA rules, organic farms must allow animals to engage in their natural behavior and have free access to the outdoors. Cows, goats and sheep are supposed to be able to get to pastures for grazing.

While the investigations will not go on, the photography presented by the group belied the picturesque images of red barns and green fields that organic brands often present to consumers. The photographs show industrial-scaled operations, a distinct contrast to advertising.  The farms - five dairies and nine chicken operations - supply well-known store brands such as Walmart, Target and Costco, according to the group.

In declining to follow up on the complaints made by the group, USDA officials said all of the fourteen farms are in good standing with their inspectors, and that the photographs weren't enough to prompt an official inquiry.

"The photographic information submitted is insufficient to warrant investigation," according to the letter from Matthew Michael, director of compliance in the USDA's organic program. "The photographs depict a single moment in time and do not demonstrate that the operations denied outdoor access to livestock."

When the photographs were released by the Cornucopia Institute in December, some of the companies argued that their animals did indeed get outside on the days the photographs were taken - they just didn't happen to be outside when the plane flew over.

Officials with the watchdog group, the Cornucopia Institute, said it likely wasn't just coincidence that that there were no animals outside, however. The timing of the photographs was left to chance - they were done at the discretion of the photography company, and that as a random sample it suggests that cows and chickens were not getting outdoors.

Current organic rules, in addition to prohibiting the use of antibiotics and hormones, call for animals to have access to the "outdoors," a seemingly straightforward term that has become subject to intricate interpretations.

Cornucopia officials said they will appeal the USDA decision not to investigate.

They noted that while these operations are in good standing with inspectors, the inspection process is flawed: organic farms hire their own, and the inspections are typically announced long in advance.

"There's an inherent conflict of interest when you hire your own inspector,"  said Mark Kastel, co-founder of the group. "What Congress designed as a remedy was rigorous oversight by the USDA."

He said, however, that whatever oversight the USDA holds over organic operations is just "an illusion."

"Many of  these operations should not have been certified as organic from day one," Kastel said. "They're big industrial operations that don't have enough acreage to comply with the law."

The Organic Trade Association, an industry group, has said it believes there are enough checks on the organic inspection system to make sure that farmers are abiding by the rules.

“We continue to have confidence in the oversight of organic operations and in the checks and balances built into the organic certification system which includes regular inspections of operations, regular accreditation audits of certifiers, and complaint investigation procedures,” it said in statement after the photos were released.