Officials at the USDA received a detailed formal complaint earlier this year regarding Aurora Organic Dairy, one of the nation’s largest producers of organic milk.
Milk from the Colorado dairy winds up in Walmart, Costco and Safeway stores across the country, and consumers pay roughly double the price because it is supposed to be "organic." But according to the complaint, Aurora was not meeting organic standards.
Obliged to investigate, two officials flew out in June and, by September, the USDA announced that the dairy was in compliance with the rules.
“Aurora Organic Dairy is a 100 percent organic company,” Marc Peperzak, founder and CEO of the company, said after the USDA closed the investigation.
But the USDA investigators who visited Aurora did not conduct a surprise inspection, although they were legally empowered to do so and the allegations warranted one, according to people familiar with organic enforcement procedures who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the matter freely.
Instead, USDA officials were in contact with Aurora officials and arranged the review days in advance. Moreover, while the USDA said records proved that the dairy had been operating organically, officials have refused to release those records.
As the sales of organic products have reached more than $47 billion, the USDA's failure to rigorously investigate complaints about companies that use the "USDA Organic" label has drawn growing criticism.
“No wonder the inspectors didn’t find any problems,” said Francis Thicke, a farmer, soil scientist and former member of the USDA’s organic advisory board. “How smart was it to tell Aurora, ‘Hey, we’re coming. Get your ducks in a row’? I don’t know that they have a clue what they’re doing.”
“The investigators should have gone in unannounced -- they should have shown up at the door with a subpoena and said, ‘Give us your records,’ ” said Richard Mathews, former assistant deputy of the USDA office that oversees the organic program. He investigated Aurora for the USDA 10 years ago and cited the company for 14 "willful" violations.
"We consider unannounced inspections to be a critical component of a labeling program's verification system," said Charlotte Vallaeys, a senior policy analyst at Consumer Reports. "Unannounced inspections would be especially important if a complaint has been received, and could be investigated by showing up unannounced."
USDA officials declined to comment on the timing of the inspection. Officials at Aurora likewise declined to comment for this story.
The complaint regarding Aurora had come from the Cornucopia Institute, a watchdog organization. It requested an investigation of Aurora, noting that the USDA had identified violations at Aurora previously. The complaint cited a Washington Post report showing that Aurora’s herds were not being grass-fed as required, and that a chemical analysis of the Aurora milk indicated that on key measures it was more like conventional than other organic brands.
Exactly what the inspectors saw at Aurora, and whether they had significant experience in agricultural investigations, have not been detailed by the USDA.
But some are skeptical.
“The USDA is not doing adequate enforcement,” Mathews said.