USDA leaves Organic Inspector to pay own legal costs to defend himself

Posted: December 7, 2012 in Uncategorized
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Organic Inspectors Chilled by Libel Case

1st published: http://thecalloftheland.wordpress.com/2012/11/25/organic-justice-an-update-for-the-common-good/

Click here for an update – November 25 ,2012

“Organic integrity relies on the ability of inspectors to register complaints without fear of reprisal. A ‘chilling effect’ from the threat of disclosure and retaliation could make it much less likely that individuals will report to the NOP suspected fraud, misconduct, or other actions that undermine organic integrity.”   — Margaret Scoles, International Organic Inspectors Association (IOIA).

A $7.6 million lawsuit against Evrett Lunquist, an organic certification inspector, and International Certification Services (ICS), is sending a penetrating legal chill through the nation’s network of individuals tasked with ensuring that the organic label has a trusted meaning.

The case, the first known brought against an organic inspector by a farmer, calls into question the willingness of the USDA and its National Organic Program (NOP) to stand behind inspectors.

For the last 11 years, Lunquist, 42, has earned extra income working part time as an inspector of farms seeking USDA organic certification. He was acting on his own when, in 2008, he notified the NOP of suspicions about Paul Rosberg’s farm, near Wausau, Nebraska. Lunquist says he felt honor bound by the International Organic Inspectors Association (IOIA) Code of Ethics to report suspected fraud.

The NOP investigated independently, finding Rosberg’s operation indeed failed to qualify for organic certification. Lunquist’s complaint should have been kept confidential under NOP policy. But his identity was inadvertently released, leading directly to the lawsuit. “In my mind this is so simple,” Lunquist said. “I reported something I was concerned about. NOP looked at it and found everything to be true. My defense is to assert what is true and factual.”

Rosberg is representing himself, pro se, in the case. According to court records, the farmer has been involved in dozens of lawsuits in Nebraska the past 28 years. While pressing his suit against Lunquist, Rosberg and his wife have meantime been indicted by a federal grand jury on six counts of fraud for selling misbranded meat to Omaha Public Schools. They face fines and prison terms if convicted. That trial was set for November 26, but has been re-scheduled for federal court in Omaha on January 28, 2013 — just one day before the next scheduled hearing in the Rosberg-Lunquist libel case in Lancaster County Court (January 29).

The Lancaster County Court, however, granted Rosberg’s motion to amend his complaint against Lunquist, adding ICS and also “John and Jane Does 1-100″ as defendants, alleging that they conspired together to deny him certification. The next hearing date in the case is January 29, 2013.

As Lunquist’s case drags on, his legal bills continue to mount—to over $27,500, as of October 2012.

Since the NOP violated their own confidentiality policy by releasing his name, Lunquist, with the support of the IOIA, asked the NOP to make things right. The NOP declined to help with legal costs or to issue a public apology, and was slow to provide documents needed for his defense, thereby driving up legal expenses. However, the NOP ultimately provided a Declaration corroborating Lunquist’s complaint. The agency stated it is taking precautions to ensure this never happens again.

Lunquist said his motivation for filing a complaint was to preserve organic integrity. “If people run roughshod over it,” he said, “then organic will have no meaning. In my mind I was doing the right thing by submitting information. This turn of events is stupefying.”

For more information, or to make a donation, visitlunquistlegalfund.org  Of note: Evrett Lunquist, his wife Ruth Chantry, and Common Good Farm are featured in a new documentary film —Higher Ground — being produced by Open Harvest natural foods coop.

Evrett Lunquist at work in the field. With his wife, Ruth Chantry, and their children, Lunquist owns and operates Common Good Farm. They produce free-range eggs, grass-fed beef, pork, herbs, and vegetables. It is one of two Demeter-certified Biodynamic farms in Nebraska. Photo by Michael Thurber.

AUTHOR’S DISCLOSURE: I serve on the board of Open Harvest Co-op in Lincoln, Nebraska. Common Good Farm is among 110+ local vendors that do business with the co-op.  This story also appears inThe Cultivator, newsletter of The Cornucopia Institute.

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