COLUMBIA, Mo. - An organic dairy producer, seeking land and a potential tax break in Columbia, settled a lawsuit in Missouri over "deceptive advertising" several years ago.
Boulder, Colo.-based Aurora Organic Dairy paid $7.5 million to settle a class action lawsuit in Missouri's federal Eastern District Court in 2012. Two St. Louis women filed the suit in 2007, claiming AOD did not actually operate under organic rules as laid out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. An appeals court dismissed that claim, but upheld "deceptive advertising" claims about the way AOD marketed its products on boxes.
The company is seeking to buy land at the northeast corner of Waco Road and Paris Road, which becomes Route B. Documents from the Columbia City Council shows AOD-MO Holdings, LLC plans to spend $2,035,600 on the land to build an 80,000-square-foot processing plant. The company may also qualify for Chapter 100 bonds, an incentive used twice in Boone County since 2015 to reduce property taxes on some equipment. The company estimates it will hire around 100 people.
The lawsuit against Aurora Organic Dairy claimed the company actually failed to meet standards set out for organic certification of its milking farms in Colorado and Texas. Farms must handle pastures that cows feed from in a specific way and allow for certain bedding, which the lawsuit claims AOD failed to do. The Court of Appeals said the plaintiffs couldn't challenge AOD's organic certification, but could proceed on the "deceptive advertising" claim based on language used on the side of milk cartons about how cows were fed at farms.
AOD spokeswoman Sonja Tuitele said the company has maintained its organic certification since 2003 and did not change the way it operated after the settlement.
"The lawsuits alleging violations of organic regulations were dismissed both at the state and appellate level," Tuitele said. "The remaining part of the lawsuit that was settled was related to marketing copy and imagery on our customers' labels, so was not related to operations. Therefore, the lawsuit settlement did not result in any operational changes."
The company produces store-brand organic dairy products for shops like Wal-Mart, Target and Costco. It runs farms in Platteville and High Plans, Colorado, along with dairy and heifer farms in north Texas. The Columbia facility would be more than 600 miles from AOD's closest farm, in Stratford, Texas. Tuitele said the company had a "high level of interest" in Columbia to serve its customers.
"We are currently conducting a due diligence process that includes reviewing real estate options and securing the approval of state and local incentives," Tuitele said. "Due to ongoing negotiations, we can’t provide any additional detail at this time."
Reagan Bluel, a dairy specialist with MU Extension, said even without an "organic" label, milk is still a highly protected and regulated commodity. She spoke to ABC 17 News about dairy farming and not as an advocate or opponent of the AOD plan. While the USDA and National Organic Program have specific rules for farms to get an organic certification, she said many dairy farmers engaged in the same practices.
"Just because it is organic doesn't mean the conventional is different," Bluel said.
The Midwest Dairy Association claims it takes just 48 hours for milk from a cow to make it onto store shelves after transport and pasteurization. Bluel said consumers should take an active interest in where their milk comes from and the farming practices they use.
"Get a chance to know who your producer is, because if you look them in the eye, you'll see the love that they have for their herd," Bluel said.