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California Court Rules Consumers Cannot Privately Sue to Enforce Organic Food Labeling Laws

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By Katharine Buddingh, Downey Brand LLP

On December 23, 2013, a California Court of Appeal ruled that consumers cannot sue federally-certified agricultural operations for product mislabeling based on purported violations of federal and state organic labeling laws.

In Quesada v. Herb Thyme Farms, Inc., California resident Michelle Quesada brought a class action lawsuit against Herb Thyme Farms, Inc., claiming that the company had mislabeled packages of herbs as "USDA Organic" when they contained a mixture of organically and conventionally grown herbs.

Quesada did not directly challenge Herb Thyme’s "USDA Organic" certification, but instead filed suit under California’s consumer protection laws based on Herb Thyme’s alleged lack of compliance with federal and state organic labeling laws.  The court ruled that the federal and state regulatory schemes enacted under the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 ("OFPA") and the California Organic Products Act of 2003 ("COPA") preempted such enforcement by consumers.  Only the U.S. Department of Agriculture and companion state agencies said the court may sue certified agricultural operations over food mislabeled as organic.

The court’s ruling signals that organic labeling compliance and enforcement are the sole province of the USDA and state regulatory agencies.  While consumers may file complaints with these state and federal agencies regarding alleged mislabeling, they cannot directly sue certified agricultural operations.  It is important to note, however, that this is the first reported California court decision to address consumer enforcement of organic labeling laws.  At least one federal district court in California has reached the opposite conclusion, and it remains to be seen whether the California Supreme Court will be asked to review this potentially important ruling.

Katharine Buddingh is an Associate at Downey Brand LLP in the Food & Agriculture Practice.  Based in Sacramento, California, Downey Brand represents food producers, shippers, processors, and retail grocers.  Katharine’s practice focuses on general and commercial litigation matters. © Downey Brand LLP


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