PORTLAND, Maine — Two Maine groups representing organic farmers have joined a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, arguing the agency harmed the integrity of its organic certification program when it made rule changes without public comment.

The group’s complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in California, argues the USDA should have held a public hearing and solicited comments before changing how synthetic or natural substances prohibited in certified organic products are listed by the National Organic Standards Board.

The lawsuit does not take issue with the new rule itself but argues that the way the USDA made the rule change was “arbitrary and capricious” and harms the national organics program.

“It is important that the organic community maintain its historical role of protecting the integrity of the organic industry,” Jim Gerritsen, president of the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association in Washington, Maine, said.

The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association also joined the lawsuit by the San Francisco-based Center for Food Safety, filed Tuesday.

The lawsuit concerns the process by which the USDA allows certified organic producers to use synthetic materials or prohibits certain natural materials.

In a news release, the Center for Food Safety said the National Organic Standards Board was established to determine which synthetic materials “do not cause harm to human health and the environment” and are allowable in organic food production and processing.

In a phone interview, Gerritsen said the rule change “is a complete 180 degrees different than what it used to be.”

The previous system put synthetics up for renewed review every five years. Gerritsen said that process reflected a view that synthetics should not be used to grow or process organic products whenever possible.

“We came up with the materials list as a compromise [from the stance] that there shouldn’t ever be any synthetics allowed,” Gerritsen said, noting he uses Clorox to prevent ring rot in his seed potatoes.

Under the old rules, the organics board would need to justify that there are not viable natural alternatives to Clorox every five years. The new rules would allow such synthetic substances to stay on the list until they are voted off the allowed materials list by a two-thirds majority of the National Organic Standards Board.

The lawsuit argues the USDA changed that rule, called its “Sunset Notice,” without proper notice and public comment.

In a joint statement, the Center for Food Safety and 14 other food producers and certification groups, argued that the public comment process factors into the appeal the organics program has for consumers.

“This process has created a unique opportunity within government for a community of stakeholders to come together, hear all points of view and chart a course for the future of organic,” the groups said. “It is a process that continually strengthens organic, supports its rapid growth and builds the integrity of the USDA certified label in the marketplace.”

In announcing the rule change in September 2013, the USDA wrote on its website it believes the change “is in the best interest of the community and the public,” citing an “increased opportunity for public input” as one of the benefits of the new rules.

Darren Fishell

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.