Organic Farmers Sue USDA over Corporate Appointments to Food Board

Friday, April 22, 2016
NOS Board member Ashley Swaffar (photo: Vital Farms)

By Rose Bouboushian, Courthouse News Service


(CN) — Federal regulators undermined the integrity of food standards by appointing unqualified individuals to decide what is "organic," farmers claim in a federal complaint (pdf).


The Cornucopia Institute, an agriculture education public interest group of thousands of organic farmers and consumers, and two of its members filed the complaint Monday against the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in Madison, Wisconsin.


Cornucopia, which takes its name from the city in Wisconsin where it is based, accuses the defendants of "appointing unqualified individuals to the National Organic Standards Board," a 15-member committee that advises the USDA on how to implement the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act (pdf).


The board develops the national list of synthetic and natural substances that are allowed or prohibited in the production of "USDA organic"- labeled food, the plaintiffs say.


"The American people have a right to trust that food certified as organic is free of inappropriate or inadequately reviewed synthetic substances that do not comport with the [Organic Foods Production Act] OFPA," the complaint states.


"USDA has failed this responsibility and has shirked its legal obligations by appointing individuals to the [National Organic Standards Board] NOSB that violate the [Organic Foods Production Act's] OFPA's board composition requirements," the complaint continues.


The improper appointments "deprive Cornucopia's members who applied for these appointments and were rejected of the right to a fair appointment process," the plaintiffs claim.


The individual plaintiffs, Farmdale, Ohio- and Wonewoc, Wis.-based farmers Dominic Marchese and Rebecca Goodman, say they applied for Board appointments for 2011-2012.


But "instead of appointing a farmer to the seat on the [Board] NOSB reserved for farmers, the USDA selected Ms. [Carmela] Beck, who works as a 'grower liaison' at Driscoll's [berry company]," the complaint states.


And in 2014, "USDA selected Ashley Swaffar, a corporate compliance officer at Arkansas Egg Company (now a staff member of another agribusiness, Vital Farms)," the complaint continues.


But "Beck and Swaffar's votes do not align with the interests of owners or operators of organic farm operations over half the time," the plaintiffs claim. "These unqualified individuals do not have the requisite experience and knowledge, and personal investment in certified organic production agriculture, to properly advocate for the interests of organic farmers."


Beck and Swaffar have voted 177 and 165 times, respectively, to retain substances on the National List that other farmer members voted to remove, the complaint states.


Plus, in 2015, the Board allegedly "altered its voting procedures from a roll call vote to a show of hands, specifically to thwart efforts by Cornucopia to document the [Board's] NOSB's votes."


In addition, "the greater number of chemicals remaining on the National List places a drain on Cornucopia's resources by increasing the number of chemicals Cornucopia has to review and report on in pursuit of its mission," the complaint states.


"Cornucopia estimates that it spends $600 per substance it reviews and estimates that the cost of preparing for these reviews by the [Board] NOSB over the course of a year well exceeds $100,000," the complaint continues.


The USDA's "unlawful meddling with the composition and rules governing the [Board] NOSB has created a [Board] NOSB hostile to the public interests it was created to protect," the complaint states.


The four-count complaint also asserts violations of the Federal Advisory Committee Act.


The plaintiffs are represented by Sarah Fox and Dir. Hope Babcock of the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C.


To Learn More:

Cornucopia Institute, et al. v. USDA, et al. (U.S. District Court for Western District of Wisconsin) (pdf)

Organic Food Groups Sue Dept. of Agriculture for Lowering Standard for Including Non-Organic Materials in Foods Labeled Organic (by Steve Straehley, AllGov)

Federal Government Allows more than 250 Nonorganic Substances to be Added to “Organic” Foods (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)


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