Important action was taken to protect the integrity of the organic label and eradicate false organic labeling last Thursday, as the California Supreme Court voted unanimously that growers who falsely label their produce as organic may be sued for false advertising.
The case began with a class-action lawsuit against Herb Thyme Farms Inc., a large California herb grower with many farms, some of which are conventional growers. Only one is certified organic. The herbs from all farms are processed together and sold with the organic label, even though a vast majority of the herbs are actually conventionally grown.
The company denied the allegations in the lawsuit.
Herb Thyme also argued that this was a federal, not a state matter, an argument upheld by a lower court, which had deferred such a ruling to federal law. The California Supreme Court overturned this ruling.
This first ruling was based upon a 2013 Congressional decision to allow only state and federal officials to police organic food violations, with a goal of creating a national standard for the label instead of allowing it to vary from state to state. The California Supreme Court's ruling against the farm sets a groundbreaking precedent: consumers now have the right to file lawsuits under California law to fight against false labeling.
Associate Justice Kathryn Werdegar wrote for the court that the decision of the California Supreme Court was not incongruous with Congress' desire to create national standards for organic labeling. “State lawsuits alleging intentional organic mislabeling promote, rather than hinder, Congress’ purposes and objectives,” she said.
UC Hastings College of the Law professor, Marsha Cohen, told the Associated Press that this ruling may prove groundbreaking in other states as well. “Nothing in here is irrelevant to a parallel case in another state,” she said.
The importance of the organic label was highlighted by Werdegar, who wrote for the court that labels, “Serve as markers for a host of tangible and intangible qualities consumers may come to associate with a particular source or method of production.”
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