Victory! Court Rejects Trump Administration's Claim that Organic Animal Standards Withdrawal Cannot be Challenged
Case Challenging Withdrawal of Organic Animal Welfare Regulations Moves Forward
San Francisco, CA – Yesterday, the federal court for the Northern District of California issued a decision concluding that Center for Food Safety's (CFS's) legal challenge to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) withdrawal of organic animal welfare provisions could proceed.
"We are very gratified that the Court agrees we can challenge the unlawful withdrawal of these hard-won animal care protections in organic production," said George Kimbrell, CFS legal director and counsel in the case. "The Trump administration unlawfully reversed 28 years of well-settled organic law and policy. We look forward to protecting the public's right to a meaningful organic seal."
In March, seven nonprofit organizations, led by CFS, sued the Trump administration's USDA and Secretary Sonny Perdue, challenging its decision to withdraw the organic standards for animals on certified organic farms, called the "Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices" rule. The regulation, finalized by the Obama USDA in early 2017, strengthened the requirements for the care and well-being of animals on organic farms. Most notably, it ensured adequate space and outdoor access for organic poultry by establishing clear and enforceable minimum spacing requirements and specifying the quality of outdoor space that must be provided. The regulation was the culmination of over a decade of work by organic stakeholders and the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). The Trump administration delayed the final rule's effective date three times, and then formally withdrew it.
The Court's decision rejected arguments from USDA that the nonprofits did not have legal standing to challenge the withdrawal decision. The Court held that the withdrawal of the rule that set organic animal welfare standards injures the organizations' members because it "undermines the organic label" for consumers.
"The National Organic Coalition is thrilled to see our legal challenge move forward," said Abby Youngblood, executive director at the National Organic Coalition. "The Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule represents more than a decade of work to clarify and improve animal welfare standards in organic and has the support of thousands of stakeholders, including farmers, consumer advocacy groups, and other members of the organic industry. With this decision comes the recognition that USDA has long exercised its authority under OFPA to implement regulations regarding the care of organic livestock."
In the withdrawal decision, USDA claimed the rules could not be issued because it lacked authority to regulate practices such as animal space and preventative livestock health care, a complete reversal of the legal and policy positions USDA has held since the beginning of a federal organic standard, and what organic consumers and farmers expect. Trump's USDA also claimed that the regulations would be costly, despite USDA's own economic analysis finding only minor costs, and refused to involve its expert body, NOSB, in its withdrawal decision, for the first time ever. In yesterday's decision, after finding standing for the plaintiffs, the Court also dismissed two of the claims brought, but gave the Plaintiffs leave to amend one of them, having to do with USDA's failure to involve NOSB. Two other claims, regarding the USDA's two main rationales for the withdrawal described above, were unchallenged by the motion and will also go forward.
CFS, as well as tens of thousands of organic consumers and farmers, expressed nearly unanimous opposition to the proposed rule withdrawal in January. A 2018 survey by Consumers Union found that 9 out of 10 respondents who regularly buy organic foods believe that it is very or extremely important that organic animals come from farms with high standards for welfare practices.
"USDA's attempt to strip improved animal welfare requirements out of the organic standards defies common sense and decency," said Peter Brandt, managing attorney for farm animal litigation at the Humane Society of the United States. "The agency's callous disregard for animal welfare may also seriously hurt organic farmers when consumers discover they are not getting the humane care they expect from an organic product."
Represented by CFS legal counsel, the plaintiffs are Center for Food Safety, Center for Environmental Health (CEH), Cultivate Oregon, International Center for Technology Assessment, the National Organic Coalition, the Humane Society of the United States, and the Animal Legal Defense Fund. In 2016, CFS and CEH successfully sued over a USDA loophole that would have allowed pesticide-contaminated compost in organic production, a case relied upon by the Court in yesterday's decision.