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WASHINGTON -- The Cornucopia Institute, an organic watchdog group based in Wisconsin, has filed a formal legal complaint with the USDA's office of compliance here against Broomfield, Colo.-based Horizon Organic, accusing the company of mounting "a well-financed campaign to 'greenwash' milk produced at factory farms that fail to meet USDA regulatory standards."
At virtually the same time, Seattle-based PCC Natural Markets, the country's largest natural food cooperative with 40,000 members, has stopped carrying items made by Horizon, which is the leading organic brand in the United States, and is owned by Dean Foods.
"Our customers expressed skepticism that they were not getting what they thought they were when they bought a Horizon product," explained PCC nutrition education manager Goldie Caughlan, a former member of the USDA's National Organic Standards Board.
At the heart of the controversy is a small number of industrial-scale dairies, managing 2,000 to 10,000 cows, that Cornucopia says are producing milk in feedlot conditions without adequately grazing their cattle as required by law.
"These large factory farms...have allegedly been doing more talking about pasturing their cows than the hard work required to truly produce organic milk," said Mark Kastel, Cornucopia senior farm policy analyst, in a statement. "What is even more repugnant to ethical farmers and consumers alike is that large corporations like Dean Foods, the world's largest dairy concern, with almost $11 billion in annual sales, and Horizon brand owner, are apparently trying to use their power to deceive loyal organic supporters."
On a visit to Dean Foods' Idaho dairy in late June, Kastel said he saw that "the majority of their 8,000 cattle were in what they called their 'winter housing,' which amounted to a confinement feedlot. They did constantly rotate cattle, during my visit, out to what they referred to as 'pasture' but, in actuality, it was just for show." Cornucopia further claimed that the company has presented the same "dog and pony show" to fool such visitors as Whole Foods upper management, among them c.e.o. John Mackey, and several journalists.
In response to the charges, Horizon Organic said in a statement: "The recent allegations made by the Cornucopia Institute are completely without merit. Horizon Organic is proud of each and every one of its company-owned organic dairy farms and its network of 342 family farmers who manage their land organically to improve the health of the land, animals and families. We work closely with our certifiers on an ongoing basis to ensure that each dairy is fully certified organic and meets the USDA national organic standards, which are the most stringent in the world. Horizon Organic is transparent in its practices, and we welcome a USDA review should one be forthcoming. Further, we are confident that the integrity of our organic practices will be borne out through this process."
The company added that it was "disappointed" that Cornucopia filed the complaint, and reaffirmed its commitment to "promote continued growth" of organics.