The Center for Food Safety (CFC), along with other groups and a number of organic farms, filed a lawsuit early this month claiming that USDA violated the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) when it allowed hydroponically-grown crops to bear the “Certified Organic” label. In January 2019, CFC filed a legal petition asking USDA to create regulations which would ban hydroponic operations from using the organic label. USDA denied the petition, and CFC’s current lawsuit also alleges that USDA’s denial violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). CFC asks the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California to vacate USDA’s denial of their petition and to bar the agency from certifying any hydroponic operations as organic. The complaint can be found here.
What do “hydroponic” and “organic” mean anyway?
Many of you are probably familiar with hydroponic and organic growing, but since the terms are very important in this lawsuit, it’s worth reviewing them before we continue.
The USDA, on its National Agricultural Library website, defines “hydroponics” as “growing plants in a nutrient solution root medium.” In other words, hydroponic plants can be grown in mediums such as sand, gravel, and water with additional nutrients. Simply put, hydroponic plants are not grown in the soil.
OFPA (available here) says in order to sell or label an agricultural product as “organically produced,” the product must: 1) have been produced and handled without the use of synthetic chemicals, except as otherwise provided; (2) except as otherwise provided in this chapter and excluding livestock, not be produced on land to which any prohibited substances, including synthetic chemicals, have been applied during the 3 years immediately preceding the harvest of the agricultural products; and (3) be produced and handled in compliance with an organic plan agreed to by the producer and handler of such product and the certifying agent. Thus, for a plant to be “organic,” it must meet these criteria.
CFC’s argument under OFPA
In their lawsuit, CFC is principally concerned with the third part of the organic requirements listed above—that in order to be labeled as organic, an agricultural product must be “produced and handled in compliance with an organic plan.” Organic plans, in turn, must also meet a number of requirements. One of those requirements is that the “organic plan shall contain provisions designed to foster soil fertility, primarily through the management of the organic content of the soil through proper tillage, crop rotation, and manuring.” At its most basic, CFC’s argument is that fostering soil fertility is an integral and required part of the OFPA, and therefore, plants not grown in actual soil cannot meet all the requirements necessary for organic certification. In other words, since hydroponics by definition are not grown in soil, hydroponic farmers can’t foster soil fertility. As a result, CFC maintains that since fostering soil fertility is required in order for plants to be labeled “organic,” hydroponically-grown plants can’t be organic. By allowing hydroponics to be labeled organic, CFC asserts that USDA is in violation of the OFPA.
CFC’s argument under the APA
The plaintiffs also contend that USDA’s denial of their 2019 petition violated the APA. The APA (you can find the relevant chapter here) is the law that federal agencies must follow when writing and adopting regulations. Under the APA, courts have the power to overturn agency actions if they are arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or are otherwise unlawful. Additionally, courts can overturn agency actions when they go beyond the authority given to the agency by Congress. Here, CFC argues that USDA’s denial of their petition was arbitrary and capricious and not in accordance with the law. Basically, they are arguing that USDA violated the APA by ignoring the soil fertility language that Congress included in OFPA.
What’s USDA’s take?
USDA’s denial of CFC’s petition gives us a little insight into what the agency’s response to the lawsuit might include. The agency claims that the National Organic Program (NOP) has allowed hydroponic operations to be certified organic in the past. Furthermore, USDA counters that the statutory and regulatory provisions that refer to “soil” do not require every organic plant to be grown in soil. Instead, they say the provisions are simply “applicable to production systems that do use soil.”
The court will certainly have a lot to sift through in this lawsuit. USDA still has to respond to the complaint, and hydroponic operations might throw their support behind the agency’s cause. We’ll be keeping an eye on what happens and will make sure to keep you updated!
August turned out to be a very busy month for food law. We’re again reading headlines about the definition of meat and debates over cage-free egg laws. We’ve also come across some interesting criminal actions involving organic labeling fraud and undocumented workers at poultry processing plants. And yet again we have a Roundup update, but fortunately for Bayer, the target of the latest lawsuits are Home Depot and Lowe’s. So without further ado, here’s our latest gathering of agricultural law news you may want to know:
Tofurkey cries foul against state definitions of meat. The maker of edible vegetarian products designed to replicate the taste and texture of meats is fighting back against state labeling and advertising laws that require products labeled as “meat” to be made of meat. Tofurky filed a lawsuit in federal court in Arkansas to stop the state from enforcing such laws, which is similar to a lawsuit it filed in Missouri and yet another company filed in Mississippi. Livestock advocacy groups succeeded in having 12 states pass laws restricting the ability of food producers to refer to their products as meats if those products contain no meat. Livestock advocacy groups argue that the labeling practices are confusing and misleading to consumers, while companies like Tofurky argue that they have a constitutional right to describe their products with meat terminology. On its website, Tofurky lists beer brats, jumbo hot dogs, “slow roasted chick’n,” “ham style roast,” and more. None of the products contain meat.
Organic food fraud puts farmers in jail. A federal judge sentenced a 60-year-old Missouri farmer to serve 10 years and 2 months in prison after being convicted of wire fraud, which is the federal crime of committing financial fraud through the use of a telecommunications wire across state lines. This includes placing a phone call, sending an email, or advertising online in the furtherance of the fraudulent scheme. Another three farmers were also sentenced to prison for terms ranging from 3 months to 2 years for their participation. The fraud involved a decade-long scheme to mix traditional corn and soybeans with a small amount of organic grains and then label everything as certified organic. The grains were mostly sold as animal feed to producers and companies selling organic meat. Organic products generally are sold at a high premium, and the volume of goods in this scheme resulted in the farmers receiving millions of dollars from consumers that was fraudulently obtained. The lengthy prison sentences reflect the farmers’ intentional misrepresentation and mislabeling. In other words, it was not an accident.
Oregon joins California and Washington to make the west coast cage-free. States continue to battle over whether eggs should come from cage-free hens or caged hens. When we last discussed the topic HERE in May, the governor of the state of Washington had just signed his state’s cage-free requirement into law. Iowa, the nation’s leading egg producing state, has gone the other way in trying to limit cage-free egg production. Now, Oregon is set to ban the purchase or sale of eggs and egg products from caged hens starting in 2024. However, Oregon’s law exempts eggs and egg products from caged hens if the sale occurs at a federally inspected plant under the Egg Products Inspection Act or if the caged hens were at a commercial farm with a flock of fewer than 3,000 hens. You can read the text of the bill HERE.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids poultry processing plants. Federal immigration officials have alleged that managers at five Mississippi poultry processing plants knowingly hired undocumented aliens who are not authorized to work in the United States. Fines for individuals or companies proven to have actual knowledge that they hired undocumented workers can reach up to $3,000 per undocumented worker. Individuals may also face prison time. According to news reports, ICE arrested 680 possibly undocumented workers during its August 7th raids in Mississippi. In their applications for the search warrants, the investigators alleged that the companies hired undocumented workers who were wearing GPS ankle monitors as they await deportation hearings, reported Social Security numbers of deceased persons, and used different names at different times.
Latest Roundup lawsuit targets retailers Home Depot and Lowe’s. You’ve heard us talk before about the thousands of lawsuits against Monsanto (now owned by Bayer) based on the allegation that the glyphosate in products like Roundup has caused cancer. If you’d like a refresher, you can review our last post HERE. Now, instead of going after the manufacturer, a new plaintiff is going after retailers. Plaintiff James Weeks filed two class action complaints in federal court in California against Home Depot and Lowe’s, alleging that the home improvement giants failed to adequately warn customers about the safety risks posed by using the popular weed killer. Mr. Weeks argues that the labeling leaves the average consumer with the impression that the greatest risk of harm is eye irritation, when in fact the retailers know of the product’s potential carcinogenic properties. As these complaints are class action complaints, Mr. Weeks seeks to claim representative status over all consumers who purchased Roundup products from these retailers, and thereby lead the case against the retailers. It will be interesting to see whether the court certifies these cases as class actions, or if this strategy falls short for the plaintiff. You can read the complaint against Home Depot HERE.
Food giants seek silence from U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission. In 2015, the U.S. Commodity Futures Tradition Commission initiated a lawsuit against Mondelez International Inc. and Kraft Heinz Co. for allegedly manipulating the wheat futures market. All parties recently agreed to an undisclosed settlement, and entered into a consent order with the court to close the matter. The agreement apparently included a provision that all parties would refrain from publically commenting about the settlement. However, the federal agency ended up commenting on the settlement by the end of the week in which the agreement was finalized. Mondelez and Kraft Heinz believe that such statements violated the terms of the consent order, although the federal agency contests the allegation. Nonetheless, the confidentiality restrictions make it difficult to know the full details of the settlement. All we know for certain is that there was one.
Federal courts report that Chapter 12 family farm bankruptcies are on the rise. The federal court system releases data every quarter on the number of bankruptcies filed each month in that quarter. The latest numbers for April to June 2019 showed a slight increase in the number of Chapter 12 bankruptcies filed when compared to the same time period in 2018. Nationwide, there were 164 new filings, compared to 135 in the second quarter of 2018. The numbers show a gradual increase in the use of Chapter 12 bankruptcy since 2013, but the numbers are starting to tick up to levels not seen since the Great Recession. Chapter 12 bankruptcy is a special form of bankruptcy that can only be used by family farmers and family fishermen whose total debts do not exceed a certain dollar limit. The current dollar limit is $4.4 million, but there is legislation awaiting President Trump’s signature to increase the limit to $10 million. In large part because of these restrictions, Chapter 12 is one of the least commonly used forms of bankruptcy.