he Cornucopia Institute has filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to compel the USDA to provide public records sought through several Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The Institute is a Wisconsin-based farm policy research group and organic food watchdog.
“We have gone into federal court because the USDA has been unwilling to provide us with important records that would help us and our farmer-members and consumers understand why the USDA has delayed enforcement of key federal organic farming standards for five years,” said Will Fantle, the Institute’s Research Director. “These are documents that they are obligated, by law, to share with the public.”
At issue is the record of correspondence and discussions that have taken place at the USDA between USDA staff and corporate lobbyists, farm organizations, and the public, concerning the requirement that organic dairy cows have access to pasture and obtain a significant portion of their feed from grazing.
The lawsuit comes amidst a growing national debate occurring in the organic farming community over the rise of factory farms in organic dairying, milking 2000 to 6000 cows in confinement-type conditions, that provide little if any pasture for their milk cows. Public interest groups and farmers have accused the USDA of purposefully ignoring the matter for years-a fact that has allowed these gigantic farms to proliferate and gain a growing foothold in the booming organic marketplace.
“We know that powerful companies like Dean Foods, the owner of the Horizon organic dairy brand, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying the USDA last year,” said Fantle. “This company and the factory farms they are procuring organic milk from are financially benefiting from USDA footdragging on this matter.”
When the National Organic Standards Board was ready to close loopholes and tighten federal organic rules in August 2005, staff at the USDA unexpectedly and without explanation blocked action by their expert advisory panel.
“We smell a rat,” said Fantle, “and we want to see if there are corporate fingerprints on the USDA’s critical policy reversal.”
Three FOIA requests, filed since August 2005, have never been complied with by the USDA. The agency released some documents in response to a fourth FOIA request but withheld several others, without explanation, prompting an appeal from the Institute that is also now part of the federal lawsuit.
“We expect USDA to honor the letter of the law in a timely fashion, something they have yet to do,” said Gary Cox, counsel for the Institute.
“Transparency is important in government if the public is to have faith in its decisions,” Cox added. “And transparency is doubly important in organic agriculture, where consumers care deeply about their food and how it is produced.”
Fantle noted that frustration with USDA inaction led Cornucopia to more closely investigate the organic dairy industry and what goes into the dairy foods being sold to the consumer. Their recently released report, Maintaining the Integrity of Organic Milk, and accompanying scorecard, based on a year of research, ranks 68 different retail organic dairy brands and measures the organic ethics and integrity involved in their production.
“If the USDA is reluctant to enforce organic regulations, we believe consumers should know which brands represent their ethics and values,” explained Fantle. “Our scorecard spotlights the heroes and identifies companies that are cutting corners.”
The report is available on the group’s Web page at www.cornucopia.org.