Promiseland Livestock’s organic certification pulled over documentation issues

Photo: Ryan Thompson, Flickr

Last week, the USDA suspended the organic certification of Promiseland Livestock, one of the largest organic cattle companies in the country. The suspension came not as a result of proven violations of mandated farming practices, despite suspicions that the company had for years been “laundering” conventional animals as organic, but because the company failed to provide adequate documentation required under the National Organic Program.

Promiseland is based in Nebraska, but the USDA’s action is a result of an investigation that started more than four years ago of Boulder-based Aurora Organic Dairy. Aurora had bought thousands of cows, on multiple occasions, from Promiseland that were said to be organic, but for which the appropriate documentation was not provided.

Documentation is important since farming practices are not monitored on a day-to-day basis. “The entire organic certification process, the backbone, is this audit trail that can verify what’s going on,” said Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute, which helped to generate the USDA’s investigation of Aurora in the first place. “Whatever [Promiseland owner Anthony Zeman] claimed to do, he should be able to substantiate, and he could not or would not do that.”

The USDA first proposed revoking Promiseland’s organic certification in 2007  after the company repeatedly refused to provide records to agents authorized to audit the company’s facilities. Last month, Promiseland withdrew its motion to appeal the USDA’s decision in U.S. District Court. The agency then announced the suspension would go into effect for five years, during which time the company cannot represent its products as organic.

“The guy spent years in appeals trying to tie this up and has operated since then. That’s the sinful part of this,” Kastel said.

The USDA says it is “pleased” with this outcome, but if you ask the Cornucopia Institute, the problem is far from over.

Aurora is the country’s largest supplier of private-label organic milk, and sells its product under labels like Safeway, Wal-Mart, and Costco, in addition to its own label, High Meadows. Headquartered in Boulder, the company was started by Mark Retzloff and Marc Peperzak, also the team behind Horizon Organic Dairy, now owned by Dean Foods. Retzloff was an original founder of Alfalfa’s Market, and Peperzak is also known in Boulder for purchasing a $5,553,200 condo that in 2007 set a record for the town’s highest per-square-foot price at $1,051.30.

The inquiry into Promiseland began in 2007 after the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) requested records from the company as part of an investigation it was conducting of Aurora Organic Dairy.

“AMS had asked for records from Promiseland in the investigation of Aurora Organic Dairy in Jan. 2007. It was after multiple failed attempts to obtain documents from Promiseland that the USDA eventually proposed adverse actions against Promiseland,” USDA spokesperson Soo Kim wrote in an email.

That initial investigation, however, was prompted by a letter of complaint filed with the USDA by the Cornucopia Institute, which had done its own investigating into the conditions at Aurora’s Colorado farm in Platteville. On April 16, 2007, 17 months after the Cornucopia Institute filed its complaint, the USDA issued a notice of proposed revocation of Aurora’s organic certification, detailing 14 willful violations of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.

In addition to inadequate record-keeping, the 14 willful violations included moving cows from its organic facility to a non-organic livestock operation and back again to its organic dairy, and the purchasing of cows that had not been under continuous organic management from at least the last third of gestation. Organic certification also requires that dairy cows spend time grazing on pasture, but that was another standard found to be lacking at Aurora.

“The day I was out there, they had about one to two percent of their cows on pasture. They had woefully inadequate amount of land–there was no way they could get their cows out,” said Kastel, who said he visited Aurora in 2005. “And then I met with a contractor who was raising their replacement animals and confirmed that they had brought conventional animals onto their farm and converted them to organic, which was illegal for them to do.”

Kim from the USDA said Aurora entered into a settlement agreement on August 23, 2007 to correct the points of noncompliance and has since made the necessary corrections and remains certified by the Colorado Department of Agriculture.

“In addition to visiting the site and reviewing the company’s organic system plan, which every certified operation is required to have and that details how organic producers and handlers will comply with all of the applicable organic regulations, the National Organic Program also audited the certifying agent for Aurora, the Colorado Dept. of Agriculture,” she said.

Kim supplied audit records for the Colorado Department of Agriculture, but said investigative reports could not be released without a Freedom of Information Act request.

Kastel remains skeptical. He said the Cornucopia Institute did its own FOIA request inquiring about the USDA’s follow-up on Aurora, but was not provided with any meaningful documentation. He added that a Cornucopia staff member visited Aurora’s Colorado dairies in June.

“They are doing some level of grazing but we were not able to determine, based on our visit, whether they are meeting the benchmarks set out in the law (we do not have access to the documentation the USDA could review).”