Court Overturns USDA's Organic Compost Policy

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By David Schultz

June 21 — A federal judge overturned a Department of Agriculture policy that allowed compost certified as organic to contain trace amounts of synthetic pesticides ( Ctr. for Envtl. Health v. Vilsack, 2016 BL 197194, N.D. Cal., No. 15-cv-01690, 6/20/15 ).

The judge, Jacqueline Scott Corley of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, said the department did not go through proper public comment procedures in developing this policy.

The ruling means that producers of organic compost will need to, for at least the near future, go to greater lengths to ensure their products contain no traces of any synthetic pesticides.

Guidance Document

The policy was first put forth in a 2010 guidance document that clarified which types of compost meet the USDA's organic standards. It stated that compost can retain an organic certification if it contains only trace amounts of synthetic pesticides—even pesticides that are banned for use in organic farming.

Several environmental groups sued the USDA last year over this document. They argued it was a major policy shift that should not have been rolled out in a guidance document but, instead, should have gone through the standard notice-and-comment process.

In her June 20 ruling, Corley agreed with the environmental groups and vacated the USDA's organic compost guidance document.

However, Corley also ruled that any compost purchased before she issued her order would be grandfathered in—it can still be classified as organic even if it contains trace amounts of pesticides.

To contact the reporter on this story: David Schultz in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at

For More Information

A copy of Corley's ruling in Ctr. for Envtl. Health v. Vilsack is available at

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