The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is coming under pressure regarding action it could take against Aurora Organic Dairy, the Colorado-based dairy group and the largest producer of own-label organic milk in the country.

According to agricultural pressure group The Cornucopia Institute, the USDA has found violations of organic regulations at Aurora farms but is being pressured into delaying or watering down possible penalties.

Cornucopia itself has alleged that Aurora was procuring cattle from a non-certified organic source in apparent violation of the law. “Our sources tell us that USDA’s investigators found many other violations during their own probe of Aurora,” said Mark Kastel, Cornucopia’s senior farm policy analyst. “We understand that powerful political influence is being brought to bear on the USDA in an effort to delay or water down the penalties against Aurora.”

Cornucopia said it had learned of the impending enforcement action, and the potential for its delay, from officials in Colorado, a political appointee at the USDA and a highly placed industry executive. “We hope that the USDA will issue tough sanctions, if warranted,” Kastel said. “And we want the agency to know that the organic community is closely monitoring this case.”

Aurora operates several large-scale dairies, milking thousands of cows each in semi-arid areas of Colorado and Texas, and was the subject of a series of formal legal complaints filed with the USDA by The Cornucopia Institute in 2005 and 2006. The pressure group called for a USDA investigation into allegations of “numerous organic livestock management improprieties”.

“After personally inspecting some of Aurora’s dairies in Texas and Colorado, we found 98% of their cattle in feedlots instead of grazing on pasture as the law requires,” Kastel said.

Aurora packages own-label organic dairy products for Wal-Mart, Costco, Target, Safeway, Trader Joe’s, Wild Oats, and other major grocery chains.