Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute has filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking in an attempt to compel the USDA to provide public records sought through several Freedom of Information Act requests.
"We have gone into federal court because the USDA has been unwilling to provide us with important records that would help us and our farmer-members and consumers understand why the USDA has delayed enforcement of key federal organic farming standards for five years," says Will Fantle, the Institute's Research Director. "These are documents that they are obligated, by law, to share with the public."
At issue is the record of correspondence and discussions that have taken place at the USDA between USDA staff and corporate lobbyists, farm organizations, and the public, concerning the requirement that organic dairy cows have access to pasture and obtain a significant portion of their feed from grazing.
The lawsuit comes amidst a growing national debate occurring in the organic farming community over the rise of factory farms in organic dairying, milking 2,000 to 6,000 cows in confinement-type conditions, that provide little if any pasture for their milk cows. Public interest groups and farmers have accused the USDA of purposefully ignoring the matter for years. Cornucopia says the action has allowed larger operations gain a "growing foothold in the booming organic marketplace."
"We know that powerful companies like Dean Foods, the owner of the Horizon organic dairy brand, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying the USDA last year," says Fantle. "This company and the factory farms they are procuring organic milk from are financially benefiting from USDA footdragging on this matter."
When the National Organic Standards Board was ready to close loopholes and tighten federal organic rules in August 2005, staff at the USDA unexpectedly and without explanation blocked action by their expert advisory panel.
"We smell a rat," says Fantle, "and we want to see if there are corporate fingerprints on the USDA's critical policy reversal."
Three FOIA requests, filed since August 2005, have never been complied with by the USDA. The agency released some documents in response to a fourth FOIA request but withheld several others, without explanation, prompting an appeal from the Institute that is also now part of the federal lawsuit.
"Transparency is important in government if the public is to have faith in its decisions," says Gary Cox, counsel for the Institute. "And transparency is doubly important in organic agriculture, where consumers care deeply about their food and how it is produced."