The US District Court for the District of Columbia on March 12 sided with the OTA in a lawsuit in which the trade group accused USDA of withdrawing the widely popular Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices final rule based on flawed analysis.
Two and a half years of tug-of-war
Over the course of two and a half years of litigation, OTA argued that USDA violated the Administrative Procedure Act by delaying the effective date of the rule multiple times – first as part of the Trump Administration’s broad freeze on new regulation when it first took office, and second in an effort to gather additional comments on the fate of the rule.
OTA also argued that USDA used “flawed analysis” when it justified the withdrawal because the agency believed it to be based on “significant, material errors” that could have “unintended consequences” beyond the organic community.
USDA argued that the calculations of benefits used to justify the rule “contained mathematical errors in calculating the discount rates of 7% and 3%,” and that the estimated benefits over time were handled differently than were the estimated costs over time. After correcting for those errors, USDA argued there was “little, if any, economic justification for the OLPP final rule.”
The agency further argued that withdrawing the regulation could save industry money and allow for ongoing innovation and development. Again, OTA disagreed, saying that removing the rule could damage the organic marketplace, which often offers farmers a premium compared to conventional.
OTA also pushed back against USDA assertions that the rule overstepped the bounds of the National Organic Standards Board. USDA argued that the Organic Foods Product Act of 1990 allowed the organic industry to develop regulatory standards ‘for the care’ of organically produced livestock as it relates to health care, but not quality of life such as additional space requirements.
OTA countered that the organic standards are voluntary and that the changes outlined in the final rule were broadly supported by the vast majority of the organic industry, which submitted 47,000 supportive comments.
As the case dragged on, USDA requested two extensions to respond on the merits of the current case, after which it conceded OTA’s charges rather than proceed to judgement. Even as it acknowledged OTA’s arguments, USDA asked for an open-ended timeframe to reevaluate and try amend its economic modeling errors.
A 180-day countdown
Rather than risk the agency continue to drag its feet with regard to implementing the final rule, the court gave USDA 180 days to reconsider its arguments and modeling.
In doing so, US District Judge Rosemary Collyer chastised USDA for its role in an “administrative process at its never-ending worse.”
Given the decision and tone of Collyer’s order, OTA says in a statement that it is “more confident than ever that our arguments will prevail and that the will of the industry will be served. We are confident that the OLPP will ultimately be reinstated.”