Organic stakeholders sue USDA over alleged 'power grab'

By Agri-Pulse staff

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, April 8, 2015 - A group of 15 stakeholders in the organic industry have filed a lawsuit in San Francisco alleging the Department of Agriculture violated federal rulemaking processes and took power away from the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB).

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The lawsuit stems from changes to the “sunset provision,” which mandates a review of synthetic and non-organic agricultural materials used in organic food production every five years. When Congress created standards for organic certification in the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, it established the NOSB, a group of organic producers, consumers, and other stakeholders. The NOSB determines which synthetic materials do and do not pose harm to human health and the environment and which are necessary in organic food production and processing, given a lack of alternatives.

Under the “sunset provision,” the NOSB would review those materials every five years and unless two-thirds of the panel voted to relist them and approve them for use in organic production, they would be cycled off the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.

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In September of 2013, the groups say USDA issued a change that was a “complete reversal of the accepted process.” The change made those synthetic materials permanently authorized unless the NOSB takes it upon itself to remove a material from the approved list.

In a joint statement, the groups say this change is a “dramatic departure from the organic community's commitment to an open and fair decision making process” and takes away the public input the NOSB considers in its determination process.

“We are filing this lawsuit today because we are deeply concerned that the organic decision-making process is being undermined by USDA” the groups said in a joint statement. “(The sunset provision) has created a unique opportunity within government for a community of stakeholders to come together, hear all points of view, and chart a course for the future of organic. It is a process that continually strengthens organic, supports its rapid growth, and builds the integrity of the USDA certified label in the marketplace.”

The groups also say “legally, the agency's decision represents a rule change and therefore must be subject to public comment. But equally important, it is a departure from the public process that we have built as a community.” They say organic consumers are willing to pay a premium for a product, but also demand a high level of scrutiny with the knowledge that a third-party certifier is evaluating compliance with organic standards.

The plaintiffs in the case, represented by counsel from Center for Food Safety, are Beyond Pesticides, Center for Food Safety, Equal Exchange, Food and Water Watch, Frey Vineyards, La Montanita Co-op, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, New Natives, Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, Northeast Organic Farmers Association Massachusetts, Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, Organic Consumers Association, Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, PCC Natural Markets, and The Cornucopia Institute.

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