Organic lawsuit against USDA can proceed

A U.S. district judge has ruled a lawsuit against USDA over its withdrawal of the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule can proceed. The rule included new standards for raising, transporting and slaughtering organic animals.

The lawsuit, brought by seven nonprofit organizations led by the Center for Food Safety, seeks to reinstate the rule on the grounds USDA’s action violates the Organic Food Production Act and failed to comply with the Administrative Procedure Act.

USDA moved to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing plaintiffs do not have legal standing.

U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg last week ruled the plaintiffs do have legal standing, but sided with USDA on two other issues.

He dismissed, without leave to amend, the plaintiffs’ claim that USDA did not have the authority to withdraw the rule based on alleged costs to producers.

He also dismissed their claim that withdrawing the rule without involving the National Organic Standards Board exceeded USDA’s statutory authority. He did, however, give plaintiffs leave to amend that claim.

“We are very gratified that the court agrees we can challenge the unlawful withdrawal of these hard-won animal care protections in organic production,” George Kimbrell, Center for Food Safety legal director and counsel in the case, said in a press release.

USDA’s motion to dismiss did not address two other claims by the plaintiffs, regarding the agency’s two main rationales for the withdrawal.

Those claims will proceed, Amy Van Saun, a staff attorney with the center, told Capital Press.

Those rationales are that USDA doesn’t have authority to set organic standards that relate to animal welfare beyond the substances used and that there must be significant market failure in order to change the organic standards and justify the associated costs, she said.

The center will challenge the withdrawal based on those rationales, she said.

The lawsuit, which was filed in March, also includes plaintiffs Center for Environmental Health, Cultivate Oregon, International Center for Technology Assessment, National Organic, Coalition, Humane Society of the U.S. and the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

The Organic Trade Association filed a lawsuit against USDA in September 2017. It originally targeted USDA’s failure to implement the rule finalized in the waning days of the Obama administration. OTA amended its original complaint in February to reflect USDA’s announced intention to withdraw the final rule.

In a statement to Capital Press on Friday, OTA said: “The Organic Trade Association welcomes the decision of the Northern District of California U.S. District Court that recognizes our colleagues’ standing to challenge the USDA’s handling of the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices final regulation.

“On the issues that were lost in the California case, however, the Organic Trade Association believes our case is different and will be handled on its own merits. We look forward to working together to undo the administration’s refusal to implement the OLPP. “

Conventional livestock and poultry groups have fiercely opposed the rule, citing health threats to animals and the public. They have argued the animal-welfare standards aren’t based on science and are outside the scope of the OFPA, which limits organic to feeding and medication practices.

They have also argued that it would vilify conventional livestock practices, open the door to activists’ lawsuits and create barriers for existing and new organic producers.