New Rules on Organic Foods Challenged

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The Center for Food Safety and 13 organic food groups on Tuesday claimed the U.S. Department of Agriculture illegally changed its process for reviewing what substances can be used in organic farming.
     At issue in the federal lawsuit are changes the USDA made to the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act. The plaintiffs claim the changes were made without public input or sufficient notice.
     The Organic Foods Production Act allows some synthetic, or nonorganic, materials to be used in organic farming because they are not harmful and there’s no other organic alternative. These materials are catalogued in the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.
     The law contained a sunset provision, which required the approved nonorganic materials to be removed from the list every five years, unless two-thirds of the National Organic Standards Board, a 15-member board of organics stakeholders from farmers to retailers, voted to reapprove them.
     But in 2013 the USDA announced a revised sunset procedure that dramatically changed the way the nonorganic materials are handled, said Sylvia Wu, an attorney with the Center for Food and Safety.
     Instead of nonorganic materials being removed from the list, the materials now will stay on the list unless the board votes them off, Wu said.
     “It decreases the pressure on the organic community to find organic and nonharmful substitutes,” Wu said.
     She said the new system requires the changes to be approved by a subcommittee before reaching the entire board. But that subcommittee is not representative of all the interests on the board, Wu said.
     “The voice of the organic community is taken away and weakened by this new rule,” she said.
     The Department of Agriculture said it stands by its decision.
     “These reforms help protect organic farmers and consumers by ensuring that any changes to organic rules, including adding to or subtracting items from the list of approved synthetic materials, are only made with a strong majority of the board,” a USDA spokesman said in an email. “We also increased public engagement and transparency, allowing more opportunity for public comment.”
     The plaintiffs are the Center for Food Safety, Beyond Pesticides, Equal Exchange, Food & Water Watch Inc., La Montanita Co-Op, the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, The Cornucopia Institute, the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, Pcc Natural Markets, Greensward/New Natives LLC, Frey Vineyards Ltd., Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, and the Organic Consumers Association.
     The defendants are Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Anne Alonzo, Agricultural Marketing Service Administrator Anne Alonzo, and Deputy Administrator of the National Organic Program Miles McEvoy.
     The plaintiffs seek declaratory judgment that the USDA violated federal rule-making procedure by implementing new rules without sufficient notice or public comment, and an injunction barring the government from implementing the rules until procedures are properly followed.
     They are represented by Paige Tomaselli with the Center for Food Safety.
     Contact Arvin Temkar at sanfran@courthousenews.com

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