Court grants temporary stay in organic lawsuit

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia has granted USDA’s motion to stay summary judgment proceedings in a lawsuit against the agency over its withdrawal of a new organic livestock rule.

USDA asked the court to grant a stay and a voluntary remand of the rule to correct a series of admitted flaws in the cost-and-benefit analysis in the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule, according to court records.

Federal District Judge Rosemary Collyer granted the motion but set a deadline of 180 days for USDA to publish a final rule explaining its updated analysis to ensure timely action.

“This lawsuit represents the administrative process at its never-ending worst,” Collyer stated in her ruling.

She pointed out that USDA issued the final rule after 10 years of work, delayed implementation three times and then withdrew the rule.

The organic rule, finalized in the last days of the Obama administration in January 2017, included new standards for raising, transporting and slaughtering organic animals.

It was set to go into effect in March 2017, but implementation was delayed by an executive order from President Trump staying all pending regulations. USDA delayed implementation again in May and November of that year and withdrew the rule in March 2018.

At that time, USDA stated the rule exceeded the agency’s authority and could have a negative effect on voluntary participation in the National Organic Program.

The Organic Trade Association challenged the delays in court in September 2017, amending its complaint twice and challenging USDA’s withdrawal of the rule.

OTA filed a motion for summary judgment in October 2019 and, after two extensions, USDA was expected to file an opposition when it suddenly asked for remand, according to court documents.

OTA’s challenges to the withdrawal of the rule involve USDA’s conclusion the rule exceeded the agency’s authority and that the withdrawal rule contained errors in its economic analysis.

OTA urged the court to deny USDA’s motion for a stay and remand and address the fundamental issue of USDA’s authority.

“The court is sympathetic to OTA but rules (and cases) are best decided on a completed record,” Collyer stated in her ruling.

Any interim decision would be negated by USDA’s action in amending its reasoning, or action by USDA could render the issues moot, she said.

OTA said in a statement it welcomes the court-ordered deadline because of USDA’s willingness to drag out the rulemaking process and thwart the will of the organic industry.

The organization said it is confident the rule will be reinstated.

“At the end of the day and despite this delay, we are more confident than ever that our arguments will prevail and that the will of the industry will be served,” OTA stated.