California Supreme Court Upholds Right to Sue for Intentional Misuse of “Organic” Label

The California Supreme Court issued a groundbreaking unanimous decision upholding the rights of consumers to sue an herb grower for intentionally mislabeling conventionally grown herbs as “organic” and charging the premium price that organic products command.

The court rejected a California appeals court’s conclusion that the federal Organic Food Production Act (OFPA) preempted the consumers’ claims. The high court held that lawsuits like this one are not preempted because they affirmatively support OFPA’s core goal of enhancing consumer confidence in meaningful organic labels, according to PublicJustice.net.

Associate Justice Kathryn Werdegar, writing for the unanimous court, said, “[S]tate lawsuits alleging intentional organic mislabeling promote, rather than hinder, Congress’s purposes and objectives.” The decision states, “[P]ermitting state consumer fraud actions would advance, not impair, [OFPA’s] 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.”

The federal Eighth Circuit, in an organic milk marketing case, found consumer fraud claims preempted by federal law. The California Supreme Court distinguishes the dairy case on its facts, making clear that “where a grower knowingly and intentionally sells some conventional herbs under an organic label and at an organic premium price,” consumer fraud claims based on such conduct complement the core purposes of OFPA, according to Public Justice.

The case is important, Public Justice says, because consumers were cheated when they paid organic prices for conventionally grown products. When consumers pay more for food labeled organic, the food should in fact be organic. The case also matters for the organic industry itself. Organic growing methods are more labor intensive and organic farmers do not receive the federal subsidies conventional farms receive. For these and other reasons, organic produce costs more than conventional produce. But many people choose to pay extra for food that is produced without growth hormones, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides. If growers mislabel conventional produce as organic—and profit from charging premium prices—they will eventually drive their honest organic competitors out of business, Public Justice asserts.

Permitting consumer fraud lawsuits such as the California suit to go forward not only helps consumers get what they pay for when they choose organic produce but also levels the playing field for all growers.

 

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