Lawsuit against USDA Inspector Threatens Legitimacy of System

The entire organic movement in the United States rests upon the assumption that when an “organic” label is given to a farm, the label is legitimate, and that inspectors are free to use their best judgement is determining whether the farm is worthy of that title. However, a recent lawsuit filed by a Nebraska farmer against an USDA inspector has called into question that system of certification, and just how safe an inspector should feel in making objective judgements.

Paul A. Rosberg, a farmer operating out of Wausau, Nebraska, filed a lawsuit last year against Evrett Lunquist, an organic certification inspector, and International Certification Services (ICS), which Lundquist works for. For the last 11 years, according to The Call of the Land, Lundquist has been working as a certification inspector, giving him some side income apart from his day job of running his own Nebraska farm. While inspecting Mr. Rosberg’s farm, Lundquist discovered some discrepancies in Rosberg’s farming practices, leading him to believe that the farm did not deserve the certification of “organic”.

Lundquist notified the USDA’s National Organic Board, and official inspectors were sent to Mr. Rosberg’s farm, where they agreed with Mr. Lundquist’s assessment of the inadequacies of organic procedure there. This is all routine enough. Then, however, the NOP accidentely leaked Lundquist’s name as the inspector that tipped them off, prompting a lawsuit from Rosberg.

Evrett Lundquist, on his farm in Nebraska
Evrett Lundquist, on his farm in Nebraska

From Lundquist’s perspective, he did everything right. “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”, Lunquist said, and all logic would tend to agree with him. (quote from The Call of the Land) Bolstering Lundquist’s case is Rosberg’s shady and very long legal past. Rosberg has been involved in literally dozens of lawsuits over the past 28 years, and he is currently a defendant in a federal grand jury case over selling misbranded meat to Ohama Public Schools in Nebraska. Clearly, Rosberg’s case against Lundquist looks like it’s going nowhere fast. However, Rosberg has offered many motions to the court, which have prolonged the proceedings (as has Rosberg’s grand jury case), with the consequence being that Lundquist has racked up over $30,000 in legal bills.

This brings up a very interesting topic for the organic industry. The USDA has up to this point refused to help Lundquist pay his legal bills, despite the fact that their own NOP was the one responsible for leaking his name to the public, which they were not supposed to do. In an industry that puts so much credence on the judgement of the inspectors, who serve as judge, jury and executioner to a farms hopes of obtaining “organic” status, you would think federal authorities would do everything they can to show inspectors that they are ready to back their decisions. If they are not, then of what use are the inspectors? If inspectors feel as though their ability to make unbiased, fair decisions has been compromised, and they begin second-guessing whether or not to report infractions because they fear future legal troubles, then what faith should we have in the organic label? Interesting questions to ponder in the future.