Court Says Only the USDA Can Decide What is ‘Organic’

Consumers in California cannot sue food producers over alleged violations of organic standards, according to the state’s Court of Appeal, which ruled at the end of December that such lawsuits are preempted by federal law, which makes the USDA in charge with enforcing organic standards and labeling.

“Limiting private enforcement furthers the congressional purpose and objective to nationalize organic labeling standards and to avoid the inevitable divergence of applicable state laws and enforcement strategies,” the opinion said. The ruling stems from a complaint filed by consumer Michelle Quesada against Herb Thyme Farms, an herb grower in Pico Rivera, Calif.

The lawsuit claimed the farm labeled a package of herbs as “organic” even though it contained a mix of conventional and organic crops. The plaintiff accused the company of false advertising, deceptive trade practices and other unlawful conduct under state consumer protection laws. A three-judge state appellate panel has found that the lawsuit must be dismissed because it would undermine the consistency of federal organic rules.

Quesada argued that her claims should nonetheless be allowed to proceed because California has its own “state organic program,” or SOP.

The judges rejected this argument, ruling that California’s program is only meant to administer federal rules within the state — it doesn’t create its own organic standards or private rights of enforcement.

“This might lead to conflicting interpretations of the national organic standards in states with SOPs, which would affect interstate commerce and defeat Congress’s purpose in establishing federal and state government oversight to ensure a national organic standard,” the opinion said.

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