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ST. LOUIS, Mo. / DENVER, Colo. - A class action lawsuit was filed earlier this week on behalf of organic food consumers in 27 states charged Aurora Dairy Corp., Boulder, Colo. with engaging in consumer fraud, negligence, and unjust enrichment concerning the sale of organic milk. Aurora said it will fight the charges.
"This is the largest scandal in the history of the organic industry," said Mark Kastel of The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based farm policy research group. "Aurora was taking advantage of the consumers' good will in the marketplace toward organics, and the USDA has allowed this scofflaw-corporation to continue to operate."
Law firms in Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri have filed lawsuits in Missouri and Denver against the dairy, seeking damages to reimburse consumers they claim were harmed by the company's actions. The plaintiffs also are requesting that the U.S. District Courts put an injunction in place to halt the sale of Aurora's organic milk stores until it can be demonstrated that the company is complying with federal organic regulations.
Aurora Organic Dairy, which operates five dairy facilities in Colorado and Texas, and provides milk that is sold as organic and packaged as private label, store-brand products said it will "defend itself vigorously" against fraud claims brought in class action lawsuits filed in St. Louis and Denver, and against any other such suits that may be brought.
"There is absolutely no basis for claims we defrauded consumers by selling milk that isn't organic - none whatsoever," said Marc Peperzak, Aurora Organic chairman and c.e.o. "Aurora has maintained continuous organic certifications for all of our farms and facilities. Our milk is and always has been organic. Our USDA consent agreement makes clear that all of our organic certifications are valid."
Cornucopia's action against Aurora began in 2005, when it filed a formal legal complaint alerting USDA investigators to what it claimed were improprieties at the dairy. In April, Aurora officials received a notice from the USDA detailing multiple and "willful" violations of federal organic law that were found by federal investigators, according to Cornucopia.
Cornucopia said its research, which it said has been confirmed by a two-year investigation by federal law enforcement agents, found that Aurora was confining their cows to pens and sheds in feedlots rather than grazing the animals as the federal law requires. Furthermore, Aurora brought conventional animals into their organic milking operation in a manner prohibited by the Organic Food Production Act, a law passed by Congress in 1990 and implemented in 2002 by the USDA.
"We believe that there are tens of thousands of consumers across the United States who have been directly impacted by Aurora's practices," said Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association. "We will do what we can to ensure that organic continues to mean organic and that consumers get exactly that when they are paying premium prices for organic food. If the USDA refuses to enforce organic standards, then organic consumers have no choice but to act as their own enforcement body using the courts to punish those corporations that put profits ahead of organic integrity."
Aurora, however, is confident it will prove critics wrong, and that it will prevail, should any such suits go to trial. "We're confident in the outcome, and will defend our company, our products, and our reputation against any and all false claims."