Promiseland Livestock will lose its organic certification for four years unless it appeals a ruling issued last month because the company kept inadequate records and refused to let USDA inspectors review the records it did have.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture filed a formal complaint against Promiseland in 2008 and accused it of a number of violations of organic standards, including using non-organic feed and reselling conventional grain as organic.
A judge ruled Nov. 25 that the livestock company had violated USDA rules by refusing to provide records to inspectors when they visited Promiseland's facilities in Nebraska and Missouri. But the judge did not rule directly on whether Promiseland's practices violated organic standards.
The Promiseland problems were uncovered as part of an investigation of milk producer Aurora Organic Dairy of Boulder, Colo., because Aurora had bought more than 12,000 cattle from Promiseland. Aurora says it stopped buying cattle from Promiseland in 2007 and put more resources into raising its own calves.
No one answered the phone at Promiseland's Bassett, Neb., headquarters Wednesday.
A USDA spokesman declined to comment on the Promiseland case Wednesday.
The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based watchdog group, has filed several complaints against large-scale dairies that have promoted their milk as organic, including Aurora.
Mark Kastel, Cornucopia's co-director, said he's glad that Promiseland will likely lose its organic certification, and that the USDA under President Barack Obama appears to be more aggressive in its response to complaints about companies not following the organic rules.
"The good news for consumers is the system worked," he said. "The bad news is that it took several years for it to happen."
Kastel said Promiseland made it harder for small organic dairy farmers to compete because it wasn't following organic standards in its operation, so Promiseland had lower costs.
Consumers typically pay more for organic food because they believe it is free of hormones or pesticides and produced with greater respect for the environment.
Large corporate farms say they can farm organically on a large scale, while sustainable family farms and the Cornucopia group complain that such operations are not really organic. The critics say the large farms contribute to surpluses that drive down prices.
The USDA said in its complaint that government investigators repeatedly requested records from Promiseland during the first half of 2007. But Promiseland officials did not provide the records and refused to let federal investigators review records during an unannounced review, according to the federal complaint.
The USDA said Promiseland has ranches or feedlots near Bassett, Neb.; and Falcon, Lebanon, Elkland and Grant City, Mo.
The company also has about 12,000 dairy heifers and 10,000 slaughter cattle, the USDA said in its complaint.