Organic dairy fights to keep USDA records from being released
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
A publicly traded dairy company is suing the USDA to prevent its organic certification records from being disclosed to an advocacy group.
WhiteWave, a subsidiary of Dean Foods, claims the agency wants to release sensitive documents in response to a records request from the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The company has asked a federal judge in Washington, D.C., to stop the USDA from turning over the records because such disclosures are prohibited by the 2008 Farm Bill, according to the complaint.
Capital Press was unable to reach a representative of the USDA to comment on the case.
The dispute is related to a controversy involving another company.
In 2007, the USDA proposed revoking the organic certification of Aurora Organic Dairy for alleged violations of organic standards. The company eventually entered into an agreement with USDA that allowed it to stay certified as organic if its dairy operation in Platteville, Colo., met certain conditions.
That deal raised an alarm among groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which filed a Freedom of Information Act request in 2008 seeking all communication between USDA and Aurora regarding the settlement.
Seema Rattan, an attorney for the group, said it was concerned that consumers were paying a premium for organic milk that didn't meet standards.
As part of its public records request, the group asked USDA to release records pertaining to any other dairy operation that had been investigated for allegedly violating organic standards.
In its complaint, WhiteWave said that its subsidiary, Horizon Organic Dairy, was the subject of such an investigation due to a complaint from the Cornucopia Institute, another watchdog group. WhiteWave claims that Horizon was cleared of wrongdoing in the investigation, but the USDA now wants to release nearly 300 pages of relevant information to satisfy the public records request.
Capital Press was unable to reach the company for comment, but in the complaint WhiteWave said the documents contain trade secrets and financial data that would be useful to its competitors.
If the records are released, it will discourage other organic producers from complying with similar USDA investigations, the complaint said.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest has launched its own lawsuit against the USDA, demanding disclosure of all the requested records.
"So much of what happens between USDA and dairy producers, the public is not privy to," said Rattan, the group's attorney.