Court denies USDA motion to dismiss organic lawsuit

Holstein cows graze at an organic dairy east of Hermiston, Ore. A judge has allowed a lawsuit to continue against USDA over the agency's withdrawal of new regulations for organic livestock and poultry.

A ruling by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia will allow a lawsuit by the Organic Trade Association against USDA over its withdrawal of the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule to proceed.

U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer on Thursday denied USDA’s petition to dismiss the lawsuit and granted OTA’s request for oral arguments at a date and time to be determined.

The rule, finalized in the waning days of the Obama administration, included new standards for raising, transporting and slaughtering organic animals.

USDA withdrew the rule in March, stating the rule exceeds the agency’s statutory authority under the National Organic Program and could have a negative effect on voluntary participation in the program.

“We are delighted the court has agreed to hold a hearing despite the USDA’s objections. Our case is moving forward,” Laura Batcha, OTA’s CEO and executive director, said in a press release.

“We are also encouraged that the court will hear our challenge to the entire, year-long pattern of unlawful conduct by USDA,” she said.

The rule, which was set to go into effect March 20, 2017, was first delayed by a regulatory freeze by incoming President Donald Trump. USDA delayed implementation twice more before announcing in December — after taking public comment — it intended to withdraw the rule, which it did in February.

OTA’s lawsuit argues that USDA’s repeated delays were issued without the required public process and that USDA arbitrarily ignored the overwhelming public record established in support of the organic standards.

“We are confident our case is strong, and we look forward to winning this legal battle to uphold organic standards,” Batcha said.

Conventional livestock and poultry groups have fiercely opposed the rule, citing health threats to animals and the public. They have argued its animal-welfare standards aren’t based on science and are outside the scope of the Organic Foods production Act, which limits organic standards to feeding and medication practices.

They have also argued that it would vilify conventional livestock practices, open the door to activists’ lawsuits and create barriers for existing and new organic producers.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Animal Welfare Institute joined OTA in the lawsuit in April.

In March, seven nonprofit groups led by the Center for Food Safety filed a separate lawsuit against USDA over its withdrawal of the rule. In August, a U.S. district court in San Francisco ruled that lawsuit can proceed, denying USDA’s motion to dismiss.

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