Evrett Lunquist, Organic Inspection, Libel and USDA CulpabilityDecember 17th, 2012
Let’s say you are an organic farm inspector.
And you file what you think is a confidential complaint with the National Organic Program of the United States Department of Agriculture.
You complain about an organic farmer.
The National Organic Program investigates your complaint and verifies the fundamentals of your complaint.
The National Organic Program then moves to strip the farmer you have complained about of his organic certification.
The farmer appeals the National Organic Program’s ruling.
And the farmer demands all of the documents that the National Organic Program relied on.
In response, the National Organic Program turns over the documents, including the complaint you filed with the National Organic Program, without redacting your name or identifying information.
The farmer reads what you have written about him and sues you for libel.
And you now are heading to court, with mounting legal bills – now approaching $30,000 – legal bills that you can’t afford.
The National Organic Program admits that it made a mistake and should not have released your name.
But it did in fact release your name.
Shouldn’t the National Organic Program cough up some money to help defend the libel lawsuit?
This case is real.
The organic inspector is a Nebraska farmer named Evrett Lunquist.
The farmer he reported to the USDA’s National Organic Program is Paul Rosberg.
On January 29, 2013, Rosberg will face Lunquist in Lancaster County court in Lincoln on a motion for summary judgment.
One day before that hearing – on January 28, 2013 — Rosberg is scheduled to appear in federal court in Omaha.
In August 2012, federal officials filed a six-count indictment against Rosberg and his wife, Kelly, owners of Nebraska’s Finest Meats, LLC charging them with conspiracy with intent to defraud by selling meat and meat products that were misbranded and/or non-inspected to the Omaha Public School system.
Lunquist feels confident that he will prevail in the libel case.
In addition to being an organic inspector, Lunquist and his wife Ruth Chantry also run an organic farm in Raymond, Nebraska.
It’s called the Common Good farm.
And $27,000 in legal bills is starting to pinch.
So, Lunquist has put up a web page — Lunquist Legal Fund — that has all of the legal filings in the case.
And he’s making a public appeal for funds for his defense.
As for the USDA’s National Organic Program, they’re refusing to pay anything.
We called up the USDA to ask about this.
USDA spokesperson Shayla Bailey wrote back:
“Unfortunately, due to the pending litigation, we will not comment on the Lunquist case at this point.”
But the National Organic Program did send a statement to Lunquist and to others who inquired about the libel lawsuit after it was filed.
This is what they sent:
“The National Organic Program (NOP) is aware of the libel suit filed against Evrett Lunquist by Paul A. Rosberg. NOP practice is to keep confidential the identity of complainants. The release of Mr. Lunquist’s identity was inconsistent with this practice and the NOP is taking steps to prevent such releases in the future.”
“The revocation of Mr. Rosberg’s organic certification resulted from the NOP investigation conducted after receipt of information from Mr. Lunquist. Our investigation determined that Mr. Rosberg had engaged in violations of NOP regulations as Mr. Lunquist’s information suggested. Based on the results of the investigation, we initiated revocation proceedings against Mr. Rosberg for failing to disclose prior certifications, notices of noncompliance and notices of denial when applying for organic certification from the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association.”
And the International Organic Inspectors’ Association (IOIA) – a trade association — issued a memo addressing the Lunquist case.
“IOIA believes the far reaching impact of this lawsuit could seriously undermine organic integrity,” IOIA said. “We seek support within the organic community to bring about the changes necessary to prevent similar suits in the future.”
IOIA also called on the National Organic Program to indemnify Lunquist for his legal fees.
But National Organic Program officials said that they are unable to indemnify Lunquist.
Lunquist can’t wait to get the case out of his way so he can concentrate on his Common Good farm.
The Open Harvest Co-Op – a member owned grocery store in Lincoln — is making a movie about the farm.
It’s called Higher Ground.