Center for Food Safety Loses Bid to Prevent Hydroponically Grown Food from Bearing ‘Organic’ Label

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) secured summary judgment in a case brought by the Center for Food Safety (CFS) arguing that hydroponics, a form of soilless agriculture, should not qualify for organic certification. On Thursday, the court sided with the agency, agreeing that the USDA reasonably denied CFS’s rulemaking petition after determining that the applicable statutory scheme does not exclude hydroponics from the organic program.

The opinion explained that the USDA, pursuant to the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA), established national certification and production standards for organic produce to remedy inconsistencies among state schemes. Therewith came a certification program and an advisory board consisting of 15 agricultural specialists.

In 2019, CFS asked the USDA to prohibit the organic certification of hydroponic production systems. The USDA declined in an explanatory letter. Last March, CFS challenged the denial under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).

In September and October 2020, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. In addition, three agricultural nonprofits jointly filed an amicus brief in support of the USDA. Judge Richard Seeborg heard oral argument via video conference Jan. 21 and issued his decision last week.

The court reasoned that the USDA’s petition denial “should not be disturbed because USDA reasonably defends its determination that OFPA does not compel the prohibition of hydroponics.” The court reviewed the parties’ OFPA arguments, noting that although the USDA’s “more granular readings” of the law are sometimes “strained,” its “structural arguments are sound.”

The court too acknowledged that although CFS’s statutory interpretation has “some logical appeal,” the USDA’s interpretation of OFPA’s structure as it relates to hydroponics is equally persuasive. Finally, Judge Seeborg noted that APA review is both highly limited and deferential to the agency’s reading of the statute it is tasked with administering.

CFS is represented by its own counsel and the USDA by the U.S. Department of Justice.