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If I'm going to spend extra on organic produce and products, they better well be fully organic. We're talking pesticide-free, earth-friendly, non-synthetic organic here. If I get a product labeled organic that doesn't meet those standards, I'm going to feel cheated.
And, as of today, I could sue. In an opinion released today, the California Supreme Court ruled that consumers can sue over "misrepresentations in labeling," when products are misleadingly labeled as organic.
Organic or Just Sort of Organic?
The California Supreme Court's ruling came after Herby Thyme Farms, one of the largest herb growers in California, was accused of mixing organic and conventionally grown herbs in the same package and selling them under a "fresh organic" label.
A class action against the growers alleged that consumers were lead to believe that the herbs were 100 percent organic when they were not -- and they paid a premium for that organic designation. Lead plaintiff Michelle Quesada sued Herb Thyme under California's unfair competition and false advertising laws.
Federal Labeling Rules Don't Preempt Consumer Suits
Herb Thyme argued that the class action was preempted by federal rules on organic labeling. The USDA, under the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, regulate the labeling and marketing of organic products. USDA rules cover certification, pesticide and fertilizer use, labels, and more. State organic standards are permissible, but states need USDA approval before enacting rules more demanding that the federal standards. Federal rules break organic labels into three categories, "100 percent organic," "organic," and "make with organic ingredients."
The California Supreme Court was not convinced, however, that those rules preempt state consumer protection suits. The Organic Foods Act expressly displaces state laws over organic standards, "federalizing" the term organic, and organic certification procedures. It does not, neither explicitly nor implicitly, preempt state remedies for mislabeling, the court found. Further, allowing state consumer protection suits "promote, rather than hinder, Congress's purposes and objectives" in ensuring reliable organic standards, the court said in a unanimous opinion authored by Associate Justice Kathyrn Werdegar.
The court's decision is certain to bear fruit, at least in terms of consumer protection lawsuits. And it's effects will be felt around the country, as California is not only one of America's biggest consumer markets, it's the country's largest agricultural producing state.