The Unity-based Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association is among 15 groups nationwide representing organic food producers, distributors and supporters that have filed suit against the federal government over rule changes involving government review of the use of non-organic and synthetic substances used to produce the foods.

Organic farmers and their advocates want a judge to overturn a new rule from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that changed oversight of the process of certifying that certain agricultural products qualify to be labeled “organic.”

In the suit, filed in Federal District Court for the Northern District of California, according to The New York Times, the group contends that the department violated procedures for federal rule-making when it failed to hold a public hearing or seek public comment when it changed the way nonorganic substances are approved for organic farming use.

The suit is asking the court to require the USDA to reconsider its decision on the rule change and return to the agency’s traditional public hearing and comment process.

The suit claims USDA rule making was illegally flawed when it amended National Organic Standards Board procedures for the official list that specifies which synthetic materials may be used in organic food production.

Under the old rule, a particular substance had to qualify every five years after a review of the hazards and need. Now the substances stay on the allowed list unless there is a specific vote by the National Organic Standards Board to remove them, which eliminates an automatic review that looked at whether the need to use the nonorganic material still exists.

The organic groups — representing a $35 billion organic market in the U.S. — claims the policy change without the customary public process “violates the foundation principles and practices” of the Organic Foods and Production Act of 1990.

Congress created standards for organic certification and established the National Organic Standards Board to oversee the allowance of synthetic materials based on a determination that they do not cause harm to human health and the environment and are necessary in organic food production and processing, given a lack of alternatives, according to a MOFGA release.

MOFGA Executive Director Ted Quaday could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Organic producers maintain that the USDA organic rule establishes a public process that creates public trust in the USDA organic label. The result, they claim, has been enormous growth in organic sales over the last two decades.

In September 2013, USDA announced a change in the rule it had been operating under since the inception of the organic program. Now materials can remain on the National List in perpetuity unless the National Organic Standards Board takes the initiative to vote it off the list.

The parties that filed the suit say there should be “an open and fair decision making process, subject to public input,” the group said in a joint statement. Legally, they said, the agency’s decision represents a rule change and therefore must be subject to public comment, according to the statement.

“But equally important, it is a departure from the public process that we have built as a community,” members wrote. “If we do not hold the line on public process, we fear that in decision after decision, organic will lose its meaning.”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter: @Doug_Harlow

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.