Lawsuit challenges USDA changes to organic farming standards

Lawsuit challenges USDA changes to organic farming standards

Organic groups come together on lawsuit alleging USDA did not follow required public comment procedures when instituting changes to organic farming standards

Organic policy groups have joined this week in a lawsuit against the USDA, claiming the agency's September, 2013, changes to organic farming standards weren't properly vetted by the public before taking effect.

The changes, the groups said, altered the process used to review what substances may be used in organic food production by nullifying a clause – called the "sunset provision" – in the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 that automatically removed substances from the approved list every five years.

Organic berries are shown in Florida. USDA Photo by Hakim Fobia.

Removed substances were then subject to a National Organic Standards Board review and two-thirds approval before re-listing. Under the new rule, materials can remain on the approved list until two-thirds of NOSB members vote them off.

Plaintiffs in the case, represented by the Center for Food Safety, said USDA's rule change undermined the decision-making process by avoiding public comment.

"Legally, the agency’s decision represents a rule change and therefore must be subject to public comment," a group statement said. "But equally important, it is a departure from the public process that we have built as a community."

Related: Organic Farmers More Likely to be Younger, Engage in Direct Sales

The groups said the review and public comment on organic rule changes "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."

In its legal filing, the groups say the change, without the benefit of public comment, is "weakening the integrity of the National Organic Program and degrading the quality of organically labeled food."

The suit was filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. It is case 3:15-cv-1590.

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