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Defenders of Organic Integrity Win Victory for Transparency and Open Government

May 06, 2019
Center for Food Safety

Defenders of Organic Integrity Win Victory for Transparency and Open Government

Organic producers and stakeholders gain access to documentation of Trump decision to withdraw animal welfare standards for organic livestock

San Francisco, CA – Today, the Federal District Court in San Francisco agreed with organic farmers, consumers, and animal welfare advocates that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) cannot hide communications and documents that led up to the controversial decision by the Trump administration to withdraw the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule (OLPP), which would have required animal welfare standards on farms producing organic meat.

"As the Trump Administration's policy of hiding documents from public view is contrary to law and good government, we are thrilled that the Court blocked this attempt to keep Americans in the dark about USDA's unlawful withdrawal of hard-won animal care standards backing organic meat, dairy, and eggs," said George Kimbrell, Center for Food Safety (CFS) legal director and counsel in the case. "We will use this victory to continue to protect the public's right to transparency in government and a meaningful organic label."

10 years in the making, the "Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices" rule was sought by organic producers and stakeholders to provide much-needed detail in the standards for organic livestock care, especially outdoor access for egg-laying hens and poultry. A coalition of organic stakeholders — including the National Organic Coalition of organic farmers and retailers — challenged the withdrawal of these standards as arbitrary and contrary to federal law, but USDA withheld "a voluminous number of documents" from the record. In its order, the Court held that agencies cannot hide their internal documents leading up to a decision, because these are part of the universe of materials the agency considered. USDA's internal documents may reveal why the agency took a 180-degree turn from nearly three decades of organic policy and withdrew a rule wanted by the vast majority of the organic community.

"To ensure the integrity of the Certified Organic label, USDA must work transparently with organic stakeholders — including farmers, consumer advocacy groups, and other members of the organic industry — not keep its decision-making behind closed doors," said Abby Youngblood, executive director at the National Organic Coalition. "The OLPP standards were a much-needed improvement to animal welfare in organic standards and had the support of thousands in the organic community; USDA's withdrawal of that rule, as well as the lack of transparency surrounding its withdrawal, flies in the face of organic integrity."

Judge Seeborg of the Federal District Court for the Northern District of California said in the order that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has a "broad definition" of the whole record, upon which the court evaluates agency decisions and whether they are lawful based on the evidence in the record. The order follows a long line of courts in the Northern District of California requiring agencies to provide the court, as well as citizens challenging agency decisions, with internal documents. As an alternative, agencies and citizens were given the option to affirmatively assert and explain why specific items are privileged and may be withheld. To ensure that those voices calling for USDA to implement the livestock standards are not lost, the Court also required USDA to include the 47,000 public comments it received in response to its first notice that it might withdraw the OLPP.

Consumers of organic products expect that animals raised for organic meat, dairy, and eggs were treated humanely and were able to engage in natural behaviors in their upbringing. Those expectations were not consistently being met before the OLPP, mostly due to a few large egg producers cutting corners and raising hens in confinement with no real outdoor access, which presented a major disadvantage to the majority of the producers of organic products, most of whom raise animals humanely.

Represented by CFS legal counsel, the plaintiffs are Center for Food Safety, Center for Environmental Health, Cultivate Oregon, International Center for Technology Assessment, the National Organic Coalition, the Humane Society of the United States, and the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

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