If a food is labeled organic, but is not actually organic, can a consumer bring state law claims under consumer protection statutes? In California, it appears that the answer is yes. In a recent case, Quesada v. Herb Thyme Farms, Inc., the California Supreme Court answered that question affirmatively when it unanimously ruled that consumers’ state law claims for mislabeled organic products are not preempted under the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (Organic Foods Act).
Michelle Quesada alleged that Herb Thyme Farms, Inc. intentionally labeled some of its packaged herbs as organic when they were not, in fact, organic. Herb Thyme Farms’ operation produces both certified organic and conventional herbs. Quesada claimed that while some of the herb packages labeled as organic were made entirely of organic product, some were made entirely of conventional product and others were a mixture of organic and conventional product.
Quesada argued that labeling as organic product that was not organic was misleading, and constituted false advertising and unfair competition. Herb Thyme Farms argued that because there is a federal framework in place governing the production, labeling, and sale of organic products, Quesada’s state law claims were not permitted.
That federal framework, the Organic Foods Act, established national baseline standards for the production, labeling, and sale of organic products. Through regulations, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defined the term “organic” as well as set standards for organic certification. In order to label and sell products as “organic,” producers must be in compliance with an approved organic plan.
The California Supreme Court held that the Organic Foods Act preempts only certain claims, such as those challenging the actual organic certification of an operation and those challenging a certification agent’s decision to certify an operation as organic. However, an allegation that the underlying food product itself was not organic though it claimed to be is not preempted under the Organic Foods Act. The Court wrote:
"[Congress] singled out the very practice alleged here, the deliberate mislabeling of conventional produce as organic, a major reason why national legislation was needed in the first place."
What we learn from this case is that organic food producers and companies cannot rely on the federal organic laws to protect them from all liability for associated labeling claims. The Organic Foods Act does not provide blanket protection to organic food operations solely by virtue of their being in compliance with the Act. Organic food producers and companies need to pay close attention to state regulations, not only for compliance with USDA-approved organic standards but because state laws now can be a source of liability for organic food producers and companies.