Guest post: Extra! Extra! Absencia Grassosis fells another organic dairy

Bonnie here: Yesterday brought some good news for those who believe that milk labeled "organic" should follow not just the letter, but the spirit of the label: that is, come from cows raised on grass, not grain feedlots. Under pressure from the USDA, Aurora Organic Dairy agreed to reform its practices—somewhat. "Organic Inc." author Sam Fromartz, freshly rested from vacation, has all the details over at Chews Wise. This morning the following piece landed in my in-box, sent by fellow blogger Amanda Rose; some of you may remember her awesome gonzo video documenting another mega-dairy, which we Digested under a teaser we don’t regret but shan’t repeat here.


Aerial photo of Aurora operations courtesy Cornucopia Institute (view more)

Aurora Organic Dairy transferred to intensive care unit

By Amanda Rose

The infamous Aurora organic mega-dairy has been placed in the intensive care unit at an organic dairy hospital in Platteville, Colorado. The Walton family, of Wal-Mart fame, may be at its bedside right now trying to breathe life into its organic milk supplier.

Aurora’s close cousin, the Vander Eyk Dairy, met its demise earlier this summer.

The disease that is killing these dairies goes by the technical name of Absencia Grassosis, loosely translated as "lack of grass." The USDA has required that organic cows have daily access to pasture during the growing season. The dairies themselves apparently thought they were in good health if any part of their herd had access to pasture.

The grass is always greener in another county

The Vander Eyk Dairy grazed its heifers not far from the Sequoia National Forest. It was a beautiful place for any heifer to live. Heifers, however, are only technically "heifers" until they have offspring. That is when they become "cows" and produce milk.

The lactating cows at the Vander Eyk Dairy did not live near Sequoia National Forest. They lived just west of Pixley, California, on land locals call "the alkali flats." It is so barren that few people choose to live there. It is a great place for a dairy because land is cheap there. Also, cows have never been known to go on a milk strike.

Because part of the herd was being pastured nearly all year long, the Vander Eyk Dairy assumed it would live a long, prosperous life. It did live for about eight years and, for many of those years, consumer advocates such as the Cornucopia Institute and Organic Consumers Association would call the USDA and say:

"Hey guys, that dairy is dead. Call the doctor and pronounce the time of death, why don’t you?"

It took the USDA and Vander Eyk’s organic certifier, Quality Assurance International, a while, but they finally decided that the Vander Eyk Dairy may have been breathing, but showed no brain activity.

"Death due to Absencia Grassosis," said the Coroner’s Report released in August of 2007.

Its death was made public in June and a formal eulogy to the dairy was posted on YouTube in typical 21st Century fashion.

Vital signs

Many in the industry read the vital signs differently. The local scuttlebutt over the Vander Eyk Dairy’s death was that the dairy was unjustly declared dead. Access to pasture should not matter. Milk quality should be the test. Locals near the Vander Eyk Dairy suggest the Vander Eyk milk is the best in the county. That is no small claim considering that Tulare County has more cattle than people and is the largest producer of milk on the globe.

An interview with Aurora president Mark Retzloff in early 2005 suggests the same: Aurora’s milk has been good enough to make the organic grade — and to be sold at Wild Oats, Costco, Wal-Mart, Target, and Safeway.

The problem for the folks with alternative measures of organic dairy vital signs is that the USDA requires that the herd have access to pasture if they are to be considered organic. A bigger, more recent problem is that the USDA has decided to enforce its rule.

Furthermore, there is something different about a cow’s milk when she is eating grass. Her milk is higher in conjugated linoleic acid, a beneficial fat that helps us keep off the pounds, among other benefits. It is higher in beta carotene, the nutrient that adds the rich yellow color to her butter. Her milk will contain a bit more of the depression-fighting and heart disease-preventing Omega 3 fatty acids when she is on a grass diet. And if Bessy is out on the range eating grass, her skin will soak up the sun and produce a natural vitamin D in her milk.

In the Western United States, these benefits will come most notably in the spring and fall, when the cow has been feeding on rapidly growing pasture. In that period, the difference between milk produced by cows on pasture will be most distinct from that produced by cows in a regular confinement system, regardless of their organic certification.

So far, the only way consumers can distinguish between pasture-based and confinement systems is the organic label.

Intensive care and positive self-talk

The Aurora Dairy lies in intensive care with retailers Wal-Mart and Safeway waiting in the halls wondering about its fate. The USDA has prescribed a cure, but it’s a tough one with some unpleasant side effects, mostly for Aurora’s wallet. Major adjustments required at Aurora’s Platteville, Colo., facility include:

  1. Providing daily access to pasture during the growing season, acknowledging that lactation is not a reason to deny access to pasture;
  2. Reducing the number of cows to a level consistent with available pasture with agreed maximum stocking densities;
  3. Eliminating improperly transitioned cows from its herd and not marketing those cows’ milk as organic; and
  4. Agreeing to use the more stringent transition process in the NOP regulations for animals added to its dairy herd.

We all like to triumph in the face of adversity, and the Aurora Dairy is already using positive self-talk to move itself out of the ICU. It issued a press release saying that complaints against them "have been dismissed."

Nothing was actually "dismissed" — Aurora’s funeral with Absencia Grassosis listed as the cause of death was merely postponed, pending disease remediation in the ICU. The ICU is almost always a better choice than death. Public relations people tend to pick up on that fact fairly quickly.

Positive self-talk and a plan for change have allowed the Aurora facility in Platteville to avoid the cemetery plot being held for it next to the final resting place of Vander Eyk Organic Dairy. The space may instead be filled by Idaho-based Dean Foods’ organic dairy facility. But who knows: With the apparent newfound commitment to wellness in the industry, perhaps those graves will stay empty after all.


Amanda Rose, Ph.D., is the author of "Rebuild from Depression" (forthcoming January 2008) on the link between depression and food nutrients. Her blog includes occasional posts on “Milk Shenanigans” around her home in Tulare County, California, dairy capital of the U.S.

2 Responsesto “Guest post: Extra! Extra! Absencia Grassosis fells another organic dairy”

  1. Libertate says:

    A good find. I always said, that the USDA needs more money. :D

    I now have to worry not just about regular stuff, but organic too? Great. So I have to think about “is this company ripping me off, and just putting the organic label on so they can charge an extra buck, or they are really organic?”…


  2. deb says:

    goes to show you that if you don’t know your producer,
    you don’t know what is really going on.
    i sure hope people wake up and start paying attention.
    usda can have all the money in the world and still not catch all the people who go around the rules.