Friday, December 4, 2015

CA Top Court Allows Consumer Lawsuits over 'Organic' Labeling

For “poor” people living in tropical countries, fresh affordable organic food is just a basic human right but Americans are not so lucky. Charging a premium for stuff that’s labeled “100% organic,” even when it's 100% chemically grown can actually be legal, as long as the grower has at least one organic farm certified as "organic," such as in the case decided yesterday. The reason even the largest US producers falsely advertise their stuff as “100% organic” is, of course, b/c truly organic food can be several times more expensive.

But maybe there is hope b/c on Thursday the California Supreme Court unanimously ruled that private consumers can sue for food mislabeled as “organic.” Before that, it was thought that only the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) could sue for such false advertising. But since the  didn’t really want to do it, many Americans had to keep putting garbage in their mouths while paying out of their noses.

Here is what the lawsuit is about. Defendant Herb Thyme Farms, Inc. (Herb Thyme) is one of the largest herb-growing operations in the US, with multiple farms throughout California. Most of its farms use conventional growing methods, but one of its farms uses organic processes and has been properly certified by a registered certifying agent. However, Herb Thyme brings its conventionally grown and organic herbs to the same packing and labeling facility, processes them together, and sends blended conventional and organic herbs out under the same label and packaging. In fact, they even package and label as organic some herbs that are entirely grown with chemicals.

Plaintiff Michelle Quesada is an individual consumer who purchased Herb Thyme herbs at a premium after being mislead that the product purchased was, in fact, 100 percent organic. Her suit, filed as a proposed statewide class action, challenges as false advertising and unfair competition Herb Thyme‘s practice of selling conventionally grown herbs under an organic label.

Herb Thyme defended itself on the grounds that, under a federal law, only the United States Department of Agriculture has exclusive authority to regulate the labeling and marketing of organic products.  But, even though the federal law only lists the USDA as the agency with the right to sue, can others sue also? California became the first state to have its own organic program approved. California law authorizes anyone to file a complaint concerning noncompliance with “organic” labeling, whereas the federal law only lists USDA. Herb Thyme claimed that the federal law trumps CA state truth-in-advertising requirements. The trial court has ruled for Herb Thyme and the 2nd District Court of Appeal affirmed in 2013.

Nevertheless, California Supreme Court has just overturned all of the lower courts and basically ruled that both USDA and private consumers in California have the right to sue for false “organic” advertising. “[S]tate lawsuits alleging intentional organic mislabeling promote, rather than hinder, Congress’s purposes and objectives,” Associate Justice Kathryn Werdegar wrote for the unanimous court.