Organic Inspectors Chilled by Libel Case

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, visit lunquistlegalfund.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 in The Cultivator, newsletter of The Cornucopia Institute.

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7 Responses to Organic Inspectors Chilled by Libel Case

  1. Clearly the certifying agency failed to act, the inspector went beyond his legal authority and became judge and jury. NOP failed to act properly
    Yes the inspected properly failed inspection by both the inspector and NOP There is the problem , no real teeth in the USDA nor NOP to correct in a timely manner issues that are before them. We know of non compliant producers, nothing is done year in and year out to make them core ct or not Organic certified Corporatrions are a major problem for co mingling grains and nothing is being done. When they buy one load over priced and sell tow loads of grain at a lower price and cover the paper work to show all was organic when it was not no certifying agency has acted to revoke the corporations Organic certification> Happens – especially now we are short grains from weather issues.

    • janeweed says:

      I don’t think it’s “clear” that the inspector or certifier were out of bounds in any way.

    • Evrett Lunquist says:

      1) You indicate I “became judge and jury” implying that I was involved in some manner of decision making. I provided a tip to the NOP that triggered an investigation. The NOP investigated, gathered evidence and revoked the organic certificate, all independent of me. Had the NOP found no violations, the proceedings would have ended. Had the findings been defensible or misunderstandings, documentation and explanation from the farmer would have cleared up the matter. At no point was I involved in the NOP’s investigation or revocation decision. In fact, I first learned of the NOP’s investigation and revocation from the lawsuit filed against me. 2) To state that “the inspector went beyond his legal authority” implies that I had some type of legal authority. I am not sure what authority you are referring to. As a contracted inspector, I inspect an operation and report observations and potential noncompliance to the certifier. In this situation, I learned about information outside of an inspection or while inspecting another party, and reported this to the NOP including the relevant context of my past inspections. I provided the information as a public citizen, observations from an off-duty inspector you could say, in exactly the same way as you could do with information about the grain fraud you mention (visit http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop and click on “File a Complaint” near the bottom of the page). I was ethically obligated, if not legally compelled, to report suspected fraud to the appropriate authority. Organic fraud is a felony. Integrity in organic is upheld in part due to vigilant citizenry reporting violations to the appropriate authority. The complaint I filed with the NOP can be found on pages 8 and 9 of the PDF at the following link/address : http://www.lunquistlegalfund.org/uploads/3/8/3/6/3836091/summons_rosberg_v._lunquist.pdf

  2. Jane says:

    Why did the judge in Lancaster Co. allow the case to move forward? Seems like a harassment suit with no basis in law.

  3. Tammy says:

    Your description of this as chilling is absolutely correct.

  4. Thanks, Steven, for bringing this into the open.

  5. [...] 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 [...]

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