Wisconsin-based organic food watchdog the Cornucopia Institute has filed a federal lawsuit against the US Department of Agriculture over the agency’s alledged failure to provide access to public records concerning the enforcement of organic standards. This, the Institute claims, is part of an attempt to cover-up the relationship between USDA staff and corporate lobbyists who employ intensive farming practices in the production of organic milk.


“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.”


The Cornucopia Institute wants access to records of USDA correspondence and discussions concerning the requirement that organic dairy cows have access to pasture and obtain a significant portion of their feed from grazing.


There is a burgeoning debate in the US organic farming community concerning the emergence of factory farms in the organic dairy sector.


On these large-scale farms, the Institute says, intensive farming practices are used and between 2,000 and 6,000 cows will be milked in confined conditions that offer little or no access to pasture.


The Cornucopia Institute has accused the USDA of ignoring the issue for a number of years, allowing factory farms to gain a foothold in fast-growth organics sector.


In August 2005 a proposal by the National Organic Standards Board to tighten organic regulations was unexpectedly blocked by the USDA, the Institute claims.


“We smell a rat,” said Fantle, “and we want to see if there are corporate fingerprints on the USDA’s critical policy reversal.”


The USDA failed to respond to three requests for documentation under the Freedom of Information Act filed by the Institute since August 2005, the lawsuit says. 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 honour 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.”


Cornucopia has conducted an investigation into standards in the organic dairy industry, recently releasing a report titled Maintaining the Integrity of Organic Milk. The report 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.”


A representative of the USDA told just-food that they were unable to comment on current litigation.