California consumers can sue companies they believe have falsely labeled items as ‘organic,’ the California Supreme Court ruled earlier this month in a 7-0 decision (in Quesada vs. Herb Thyme Farms, S216305).
This ruling overturns a lower court’s ruling, which interpreted federal organic labeling laws as only allowing the federal government to sue for organic labeling violations. In this prior ruling, the lower court held that consumers can only complain to Department of Agriculture and that only federal authorities can actually file complaints in court against companies for allegedly failing to comply with the law.
The state Supreme Court, however, disagreed with the lower court’s ruling finding that:
By all appearances, permitting state consumer fraud actions would advance, not impair, these goals. Substitution fraud, intentionally marketing products as organic that have been grown conventionally, undermines the assurances the USDA Organic label is intended to provide. Conversely, the prosecution of such fraud, whether by public prosecutors where resources and state laws permit or through civil suits by individuals or groups of consumers, can only serve to deter mislabeling and enhance consumer confidence.
Background on the Case
According to court documents, a California woman filed a lawsuit against Herb Thyme Farms, Inc., alleging that the company had misled consumers into believing that its products were 100 percent organic.
Specifically, Herb Thyme Farms falsely labeled its herbs as organic even though their herbs were either conventionally grown or comprised a mix of conventionally and organically grown herbs. In both cases, premium organic prices were charged, the complaint explains.
Attempting to fight these allegations, attorneys for Herb Thyme Farms argued that individual consumer claims challenging the ‘organic’ labels on food could trigger the “second-guess[ing of] the USDA’s certification” and that they should, therefore, be barred.
Ultimately, the California Supreme court ruled in favor of the consumer. As Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar explained in the written decision:
Private claims like those here are thus consistent with the Organic Foods Act‘s goals of reassuring consumers and enabling fair competition.
She went on to explain that preventing consumers from being able to pursue such claims “would render organic labeling uniquely immune from suits for deception.”
It remains to be seen whether Herb Thyme will try to appeal the decision and take it to the Supreme Court for review. If that occurs, we will report the latest updates to you here in a future blog.
Contact the Los Angeles Consumer Attorneys at Broslavsky & Weinman, LLP
If you have been deceived by a company’s misleading or false claims, contact the Los Angeles consumer attorneys at Broslavsky & Weinman, LLP to find out more about your best options for financial recovery.
Call us at (310) 575-2550 or email us using the contact form on this page to set up an initial consult with one of our lawyers and find out more about how we can help you.