St. Louis, MO, Denver, CO - Class action lawsuits were filed in US district courts in St. Louis and Denver this week alleging that Aurora Dairy Corporation, doing business as Aurora Organic Dairy, committed "unfair and deceptive practices" and was unjustly enriched by marketing and selling milk alleged to be organic, at prices "much higher" than non-organic milk, when the company knew or should have known that its milk did not meet the standards of organic certification.
Aurora Dairy said it will defend itself vigorously against the fraud claims and against any other such suits that may be brought. The company expressed confidence it will prevail, should any of the cases go to trial.
Attorneys that filed the lawsuits are seeking damages from Aurora to reimburse consumers harmed by the company's actions and are requesting that the US district courts put an injunction in place to halt the ongoing sale of Aurora's organic milk in grocery stores until it can be demonstrated that the company is complying with federal organic regulations. The lawsuit filed in St. Louis alleges that Aurora has engaged in a number of activities which violate the standards for organic milk production as set out in the Organic Food Products Act (OFPA) of 1990, as amended, and the regulations pertaining to the OFPA.
Various organic watchdog groups, including the Cornucopia Institute and the Organic Consumers Association, have voiced similar concerns, and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has investigated Aurora and "found significant problems," according to the lawsuit.
Despite federal law outlining the requirements for organic certification of milk, despite complaints by nonprofit groups and despite "extended investigations," Aurora, beginning in 2003 and continuing through the present, has continually labeled milk as "organic" when it does not comply with organic requirements, the lawsuit alleges.
Specifically, the lawsuit alleges that Aurora has violated organic certification standards in the following ways:
•Aurora failed to provide a total feed ration that included pasture, failed to establish and maintain appropriate pasture conditions and failed to establish and maintain access to pasture.
•Aurora allowed conventional cows to be milked as organic before the cows completed the required one-year period of continuous organic management and purchased other conventional cows that had not been under organic management from at least the last third of gestation.
•Aurora often allowed "organic" cows to be managed at non-organic ranches, and then returned the cows to Aurora facilities for milking.
•At multiple facilities, Aurora used non-organic bedding materials for its cattle (which are animals which sometimes consume their bedding).
•Aurora also failed to: maintain and provide adequate documentation to assure compliance with organic standards regarding things such as utilization of off-site facilities for management of cattle; and provide notice to certifying bodies regarding changes to its approved organic system plans.
Because of these actions, "the milk produced by Aurora was not organic," according to the lawsuit. "As such, Aurora mislabeled milk as organic when it was not," which is a violation of the National Organic Program (NOP) regulations.
"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."
But according to Marc Peperzak, Aurora's chairman and CEO, the company's August 23, 2007 consent agreement with USDA recognized that Aurora Organic Dairy currently has eight valid organic certifications under the NOP.
"There is absolutely no basis for claims we defrauded consumers by selling milk that isn't organic," Peperzak said. "Aurora Organic Dairy has maintained continuous organic certifications for all of our farms and facilities. Our milk is and always has been organic."
Peperzak said it's "ironic" that Aurora has been "falsely accused" of misleading consumers.
"The principal sources of misinformation and consumer confusion are the activist groups that are attacking our company and encouraging the filing of misguided lawsuits," he said. "Their agenda is clear: they want to limit the supply of organic milk and drive up the price paid by American families."
Aurora Organic Dairy includes headquarters offices in Boulder, CO, and an organic dairy farm and onfarm organic dairy processing plant near Platteville, CO. The company also has organic farms near Dublin, TX; Kersey, CO; and near Stratford, TX, which began organic milk production this past summer.