CA’s Highest Court: Organic Consumer Protection Suits Not Preempted

Shannon Nessier 
Shannon Nessier
December 4, 2015

Justice Werdegar, in a unanimous opinion released late Thursday, delivered news the Organic industry was hoping not to get: California consumers are not prohibited from challenging false organic food labels on the basis of federal preemption.

In Quesada v. Herb Thyme Farms Inc., S216305 (California Supreme Court Dec. 3, 2015), a consumer alleged that Herb Thyme Farms Inc. was selling herbs labeled organic, which were, in whole or in part, made up of conventionally grown herbs. The district court found the deceptive labeling action preempted by the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, which regulates farming methods for organic-marketed produce and organic certification programs. The Court of Appeals affirmed that outcome, though by finding the claims preempted by implication.

The California Supreme Court disagreed. The silence of the Organic Foods Production Act on the issue of consumer protection lawsuits, and the fact that deceptive labeling claims are generally governed by state law, both weighed against the presumption of federal preemption. (Id. at *7.) The Court reasoned that the purpose of a clear national definition of organic production was so consumers could rely on organic labels and to curtail consumer fraud. (Id. at *2.) Because the state claims advance, rather than hinder, the Legislature’s purposes and objectives in the Organic Foods Production Act, the Court found that the state claims would not get in the way of the federal statutory scheme. (Id.)

Though consumers and Organic producers will have to wait and see what impact this decision will have on the way Organic food is marketed in California and the volume of Organic deceptive labeling claims filed in state courts, it is certain they will all be watching carefully.