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USDA decision jeopardizes organic standards

(Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- From a Nov. 13 news release

Contacts: Jill Krueger, Farmers' Legal Action Group, Inc., 651-223-5400

WASHINGTON, DC - In a decision that may have far-reaching implications for the fledgling National Organic Program, an administrative judge within USDA ruled that accredited certifying agents have no right to appeal when USDA overturns their decisions. The ruling dismissed an appeal filed by Massachusetts Independent Certification, Inc. (MICI). MICI had argued in its appeal that a USDA official unlawfully interfered with its enforcement of the requirement that laying hens must be given access to the outdoors in order for the eggs to be labeled as organic. Under the Organic Foods Production Act, passed in 1990, the Secretary of Agriculture was required to establish an appeal process that would allow any person to appeal an action by USDA that violates the requirements of the organic certification program.

The dispute arose when MICI denied an organic certificate to The Country Hen, an egg producer based in Massachusetts, because it determined that the chickens did not have access to the outdoors, as required by organic regulations. The day after MICI issued its formal denial, the Administrator overturned its decision.

"No one from USDA ever reviewed our files, talked to our Certification Committee, or even asked us a single question concerning the denial," noted Don Franczyk, MICI's Certification Administrator.

Accredited certifying agents are private entities or state governments that have been found by USDA to have sufficient expertise to determine whether farmers and food processors who apply to participate in the National Organic Program meet the organic standards. Accredited certifying agents have the legal authority to grant organic certificates, and USDA does not.

Judith Gillan, an MICI Board member, points out that the issue is much larger than the concerns of one certifying agent.

"If USDA can overturn a certifying agent's decision without even holding a hearing, how can consumers be confident that food bearing the USDA Organic seal was produced in the manner they expect?" Gillan asked. "For decades, farmers and consumers have counted on certifying agents to uphold strict organic standards. We can't do our job if we are denied the right to appeal USDA decisions. It's that simple."

Jill Krueger, an attorney with Farmers' Legal Action Group (FLAG), observed that, "USDA usurped the role of the certifying agent, undermined the organic standards, and failed to provide due process. It is unlikely that the organic community will accept this state of affairs, any more than it accepted last year's attack on the organic standards." An exemption that would have allowed poultry producers to feed their chickens non-organic feed was overturned by Congress in less than two months earlier this year due to intense pressure from the organic community. FLAG represents MICI in its appeal.

"The Organic Foods Production Act recognized that there was already considerable expertise in organic farming in the private sector," Gillan said. "That is why Congress included private certifiers in the National Organic Program. All we ask is that we be allowed to play this important independent role. Maintaining the independence of certifying agents is crucial to the preservation of organic integrity." MICI expects to make a decision about its next step in the legal process in the near future.

To read the judge's decision and MICI's legal pleadings, visit the Farmers' Legal Action Group website at http://www.flaginc.org . FLAG is a nonprofit law center in St. Paul, Minnesota dedicated to providing legal services to family farmers and their rural communities in order to help keep family farmers on the land.