The California Supreme Court recently ruled that consumers can sue over “misrepresentations in labeling,” when products are misleadingly labeled as organic, overturning an appellate court’s ruling that the proposed class action was preempted by federal law regulating organic produce.
In the unanimous ruling, Michelle Quesada v. Herb Thyme Farms, Inc., the state’s seven justices stated that “[a] central purpose behind adopting a clear national definition of organic production was to permit consumers to rely on organic labels and curtail fraud…Accordingly, state lawsuits alleging intentional organic mislabeling promote, rather than hinder, Congress’s purposes and objectives.”
The class action sued Herb Thyme under California’s unfair competition and false advertising laws alleging that consumers were lead to believe that the herbs were 100 percent organic when they were not and consequently paid a premium.
Herb Thyme argued that the class action was preempted by federal rules on organic labeling, and that under the USDA, the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, which regulates the labeling and marketing of organic products, the federal rules breaks organic labels into three categories, “100 percent organic,” “organic,” and “made with organic ingredients.”
However, the California Supreme Court stated that when it came to making sure the organic label was not fraudulently used and whether general consumer protection lawsuits could be used to enforce the regulations, “the text of the Organic Foods Act offers only silence.”
As California is not only one of America’s biggest consumer markets but also the country’s largest agricultural producing state, the implications of this holding will be far-reaching.
Produce sellers must be very careful when using the term “organic” on any labeling to make sure it complies not only with USDD rules, but also California State Law.