A District Court judge in California has ruled that a group of organic stakeholders has the legal standing to challenge USDA’s withdrawal of organic animal welfare language earlier this year.
The decision allows a case challenging USDA’s withdrawal of the Organic Livestock Poultry Practices rule, a regulation the department argued “would exceed USDA’s statutory authority.” Proponents of the rule argued it would only impact producers opting to take part in organic production, not the entire animal ag industry.
The rule – published in the final days of the Obama administration – would have set animal welfare standards in organic animal production, specifically through provisions like required outdoor access for poultry.
The judge ruled that the Center for Food Safety made “the requisite showing of standing to bring claims on behalf of their member consumers,” and since CFS has standing, the other groups in the suing coalition – Center for Environmental Health, Cultivate Oregon, the International Center for Technology Assessment, the National Organic Coalition, the Humane Society of the United States, and the Animal Legal Defense Fund – do as well.
A spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture referred questions to the Department of Justice. George Kimbrell, CFS legal director and counsel, welcomed the decision.
“The Trump administration unlawfully reversed 28 years of well-settled organic law and policy,” he said. “We look forward to protecting the public’s right to a meaningful organic seal.”
However, the judge also dismissed a claim brought by the plaintiffs that USDA violated the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) by failing to consult with the National Organic Standards Board when the department opted to withdraw the rule.
The coalition, the judge concluded, appeared to be staking that challenge “entirely upon USDA’s allegedly inadequate explanation for acting contrary to NOSB’s recommendations … an accusation that is, by itself, insufficient to support arbitrary and capricious review.”
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The plaintiffs have been given the opportunity to amend the claim. But since the NOSB issue is also discussed in a case brought by the Organic Trade Association, the precedent of the ag secretary not having to rely on NOSB’s recommendations to set policy could bode well for USDA’s cases.
“Congress could have easily written the organic board to run the program; that’s not what they did,” a legal expert following the case told Agri-Pulse. “They gave the regulatory power to the secretary to make discretionary decisions about how to implement it, and that’s what he’s done here.”
The ruling also dismissed an assertion that USDA should not have considered cost when opting to withdraw the rule, saying that the plantiffs’ claim “fails on its face.” The act that created the organic program, the court states, “cannot possibly have anticipated the exact nature” of the rule when it called for “detailed regulations” to be issued.
“Plaintiffs can point to nothing in either the text or legislative history of the OFPA that even suggests congressional intent to bar cost-benefit analysis in connection with the promulgation or withdrawal of any particular rule, even where the rulemaking itself is required under the Act,” the ruling notes.
The expert who spoke with Agri-Pulse pointed to the two rejections issued by the court to argue that it was a good ruling for USDA, especially considering that a judge appointed under the Obama administration and serving in a District Court in California wrote it.
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