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Daily News Blog

15
Apr

Groups Sue USDA for Failure to Seek Public Comment on Organic Compost Rule

(Beyond Pesticides, April 15, 2015)””The Center for Environmental Health, Beyond Pesticides, and the Center for Food Safety (CFS) filed a federal lawsuit challenging the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program’s (NOP) failure to follow the law in making a substantial rule change to the USDA organic standard. At issue is the contaminated compost guidance released by USDA, which weakens the long-standing prohibition of synthetic pesticide contaminants.

The plaintiff organizations are jointly represented by legal counsel at the Crag Law Center and CFS. The filing follows on the heels of a lawsuit filed last week  by 15 farm, consumer and certifier organizations with a similar procedural challenge to a  rule change to the organic sunset process, which regulates synthetic chemical exceptions in organic production.

Prior to the new contaminated compost guidance, organic regulations expressly prohibited fertilizers and compost from containing any synthetic substances not included on organic’s National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. According to Ralph Bloemers, staff attorney for the Crag Law Center, “The new guidance radically changes organic requirements, allowing organic producers to use compost materials treated with synthetic pesticides.” The USDA made this rule without the required rule-making process, usurping the public’s right to ensure USDA activities are consistent with the Organic Food Production Act.

“Consumers want healthier choices and have a right to expect that the organic label insures that organic food was produced without harmful pesticides,” said Michael Green, Executive Director of CEH. “By allowing chemical residues to sneak into organic production  through  this undemocratic, back-door rule, the USDA is recklessly putting the integrity of the organic seal at risk.”

“The organic market is driven by consumer trust in an organic process that respects the historical commitment to public consultation and the legal requirement for public hearing and comment,” said Jay Feldman, executive director of plaintiff Beyond Pesticides and a former National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) member. “We are taking action to ensure the integrity of the regulations that guide organic production.”

“In this case USDA decided to unlawfully ignore vital public participation and transparency requirements while undermining the organic standard, creating a new loophole for pesticides,” said George Kimbrell, CFS senior attorney. “Worse, this decision is part of a larger USDA pattern and practice of decision-by-fiat. We will not let it continue.”

The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) requires that producers are responsible for identifying sources of feedstocks used in compost to ensure that only allowable plant and animal materials are used. The new NOP guidance violates OFPA by allowing green waste in compost to contain pesticide residues.   Beyond Pesticides submitted comments to NOSB on contaminated inputs in organic production, seeking to protect organic farms from off-farm  contamination. The comments note that genetically engineered grasses, alfalfa, and wheat straw are potential contaminants of lawn/yard waste and compost. See more on Contamination Issues in Farm Inputs on Beyond Pesticides webpage Keeping Organic Strong.

“Public participation in governmental decision making is the hallmark of organic food production,” said Dr. Lisa J. Bunin, organic policy director at Center for Food Safety. “It’s also what ensures government accountability in maintaining and enhancing organic integrity throughout the entire supply chain.”

Plaintiffs allege that the USDA’s decision weakens the integrity of organic food production, not only by creating inconsistent organic production standards but also by undermining the essential public participation function of organic policy-making. Since USDA never subjected the contaminated-compost decision to formal notice and public comment rulemaking, USDA failed in its duty to ensure that its regulation is consistent with the OFPA and the standards set forth for approving the use of synthetic substances.

For more on organic standards and how you can play a part in maintaining the integrity of organic, visit the Keeping Organic Strong webpage.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

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