Court rules USDA exceeded authority over organic program

Boston, MASSACHUSETTS, Posted February 10, 2005: In the first legal test of USDA’s implementation of the National Organic Program to reach the federal courts, the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on January 26, 2005 that USDA had overstepped its authority in several important respects.

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About the case:

View Decision
View Brief of Amici Curiae

Supporting organizations:

Farmers’ Legal Action Group is a nonprofit law center in St. Paul , Minnesota dedicated to providing legal services to family farmers and their rural communities in order to help keep family farmers on the land.

Rural Advancement Foundation International is a public interest organization based in Pittsboro , North Carolina . Through its many research and educational activities and through its membership in the National Organic Coalition, RAFI-USA provides a voice for promoting organic agricultural integrity and for protecting rights of family farmers.

Center for Food Safety works to protect human health and the environment by curbing the proliferation of harmful food production technologies and by promoting organic and other forms of sustainable agriculture. CFS engages in legal, scientific and grassroots initiatives to guide national and international policymaking on critical food safety issues.

Beyond Pesticides, working with allies to protect public health and the environment, is leading the transition to a world free of toxic pesticides. Founded in 1981, the organization, through its information and advocacy programs, effects change through local action, assisting individuals and community-based organizations to stimulate discussion on the hazards of toxic pesticides, while promoting protective policies and practices.

Arthur Harvey, an organic blueberry grower, organic inspector, and consumer of organic foods, raised seven objections to the regulations passed by USDA to implement the National Organic Program. The National Organic Program provides for third-party certification of claims that organic farmers and food processors followed organic practices in producing food. Food that is certified organic may bear the USDA Organic seal, while food that is certified as being made with a qualifying percentage of organic ingredients may make that claim on its label.

Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), the Center for Food Safety, and Beyond Pesticides filed a friend of the court brief in the case, Harvey v. Veneman. The friend of the court brief, which was submitted by Farmers’ Legal Action Group and the Center for Food Safety, addressed three of the seven issues raised by Mr. Harvey in his challenge to USDA’s implementation of the National Organic Program. The court ruled in Mr. Harvey’s favor on the three counts addressed by the friend of the court brief.

Joseph Mendelson, an attorney at the Center for Food Safety, observed that “The ruling by Judge Schwarzer affirmed the basic principle that no one—not even the United States Department of Agriculture—is above the law.” Judge Schwarzer is a senior district judge of the Northern District of California, who sat on the First Circuit panel by designation.

Michael Sligh , Director of Sustainable Agriculture Policy at the Rural Advancement Foundation International and founding chair of the National Organic Standards Board stated, “We were compelled to submit a ‘friend of the court’ brief in this case to urge the court of appeals not to cede to USDA new powers not provided for in the law. Basic principles of good government process and the integrity of the USDA Organic seal were at stake.” Sligh noted that the court ruling may result in the need for changes in the practices of some organic farmers and organic food processors who have complied in good faith with current USDA regulations. He stated, “We are strongly advocating for a reasonable and adequate timeline for implementing the court’s decision so that organic family farmers and others have an opportunity to sort out the implications of the decision for their own operations.“

Jay Feldman, the Executive Director of Beyond Pesticides, agreed that, “We will work with our partners in the organic community to ensure that consumer expectations of organic food continue to be met without disruption in the organic marketplace.”

Federal court rules allow 45 days for USDA and Mr. Harvey to decide whether to seek review of the decision by the entire First Circuit. The return of the First Circuit’s decision to the District Court of Maine will not take place until at least 7 days after that time has run. Action by the District Court to carry out the First Circuit’s order could be further delayed if either party seeks review before the United States Supreme Court.

Jill Krueger, an attorney at Farmer’s Legal Action Group stated, “We hope that USDA will continue to work with the organic community as it considers how to respond to the First Circuit’s ruling. We believe that if we work together and engage in public dialogue and debate, we can find a way for USDA to implement the National Organic Program so that it upholds the integrity of the law and the USDA Organic label, while not placing undue burdens upon organic family farmers and organic food handlers.”

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