Shamrock Farms is under fire from the USDA for questionable “split operation” livestock management practices that could get their organic certification revoked. The USDA investigation is in response to a formal complaint by the Cornucopia Institute, an organic industry watchdog that first inspected Shamrock in 2008. Cornucopia found “inadequate, overgrazed pasture adjacent to their milking facility,” and learned from Shamrock employees that “the confined cows had not been out in weeks.” Federal organic regulations require that cows be grazed, a practice that some factory-scale dairies shirk according to Cornucopia’s investigations.

Shamrock, an industrial-scale organic dairy located south of Phoenix, Arizona, is the state’s first ever certified organic dairy. At the time of Cornucopia’s inspection, the facility was milking about 16,000 cows, with between 700 and 1,100 cows in the organic milk herd. Cornucopia’s Senior Farm Policy Analyst Mark Kastel says, “This dairy operation never should have been certified in the first place,” and adds that the three year lapse between their complaint and the USDA’s enforcement “is a grave disservice and abdication of the USDA’s congressional mandate to protect the industry from improprieties.”

While even delayed enforcement action is good news, the case against Shamrock Farms reveals a number of shortcomings in the organic certification process. In a recent letter to Cornucopia, the USDA said it completed its investigation of Shamrock by referring the complaint to the operation’s certifier, Quality Assurance International (QAI). Cornucopia openly questions the propriety of the USDA essentially sub-contracting investigations to certifiers. If Shamrock is in “flagrant violation of the law” as Cornucopia alleges, and QAI continued to certify them since 2008, then QAI is complicit in the violation and should be up for suspension according to precedent.

In a notice to Cornucopia, the USDA says that QAI issued a “Letter of Proposed Suspension,” but that Shamrock has appealed and continues to distribute its milk and sour cream products throughout the Rocky Mountain and Southwest regions. The USDA refuses to release the actual Letter of Proposed Suspension, which marks a break from tradition that even the Bush Administration’s USDA followed. Kastel laments this decline in openness, noting that documents that had previously been released are now being withheld or are so heavily redacted upon release that they are useless to the public and media.

Fortunately for organic farmers and consumers, Cornucopia research suggests that “90% of all organic dairy brands are produced with high integrity.” Shamrock Farms and other busted dairy operations, coupled with a reluctant USDA and secretive National Organic Program, underscore the importance of policy groups keeping certifiers in check. Watchdogs like Cornucopia are helping preserve the integrity of the organic label in the face of selective enforcement and declining transparency.

You can see photos of Shamrock’s facilities among others in Cornucopia’s photo gallery.

Image: jrubinic

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