California’s ‘Organic’ Lawsuit Ruling Can Change The Future Of Food Labeling

A ruling passed in 2013 by California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal has made it impossible to contest a consumer’s lawsuit for falsely labeling products as ‘organic’. The ruling clearly states that it is the duty of the federal government and not the state to monitor ‘organic’ label.

organic label falsely

However, this scenario may just change for good as the California Supreme Court overturned that ruling in December, letting state ‘police’ the ‘organic’ label. The California Supreme Court was ruling on a case between a consumer and Herb Thyme Farms Inc when it had to first decide about it’s jurisdiction in this matter. It ruled unanimously:

“Accordingly, state lawsuits alleging international organic mislabeling promote, rather than hinder, Congress’s purpose and objectives”.

Although this law suit isn’t concluded yet, the consumers can now file lawsuits when they feel that an ‘organic’ label is falsely representing itself. Since majority of organic consumer has made an aware choice to buy organic, chances are good that this new ruling will help bring about the much-needed change to regulate labels. But there are also chances that this new step could overload courts with a surge of lawsuits.

“I don’t predict a surge of lawsuits,” wrote Alexis Baden-Mayer, the Political Director for the Organic Consumers Association, in an email. “There are very few areas where the organic rules aren’t being followed.”

organic label

In other words, the Herb Thyme Farms suit is an outlier in terms of an organization trying to get around the regulations. Not to say there aren’t others out there — and now, they are more likely to be taken to court — but this decision isn’t going to suddenly overwhelm the system with consumers claiming their organic food isn’t really organic.

That doesn’t mean the whole landscape will remain untouched. Rather, Baden-Mayer expects more lawsuits involving areas where the “organic” label doesn’t have strict regulations yet.

“We may see more lawsuits involving personal care products falsely labeled as ‘organic,’ an area that USDA doesn’t police,” Baden-Mayer wrote. “Or ‘organic’ infant formulas that have several synthetic ingredients in them.”

The suits, then, could be a way towards figuring out what the organic label means across the entire spectrum of products, not just food. This may be ultimately the biggest effect this California Supreme Court decision has on the label.

“The USDA defines organic, and they enforce that definition for food,” Baden-Mayer wrote. “So when consumers see other products, like body-care, labeled organic, they expect those products to meet the same standard. Now that there’s a threat of enforcement, we’ll see fewer body-care products labeled organic, but the ones that are, we’ll know meet the same organic standard as food and that’s a very high standard.”

As for how this affects the “natural” label on foods — which, remember, means absolutely nothing — remains to be seen.


“The FDA has opened a public comment period up on the definition of ‘natural,’ so if a stricter definition were to be adopted, it could probably be enforced through the courts in a similar fashion,” Baden-Mayer wrote. “Still, we’re not going to see detailed regulations for ‘natural’ like we have for ‘organic.'”

Perhaps the biggest thing to watch out for is if other states follow California’s lead on the issue.

“I do think that California’s decision, while not binding on other states, is a good precedent for other states to follow, and will likely act as a deterrent to organic fraud,” Baden-Mayer wrote.

After all, there’s a reason for the saying “As California goes, so goes the rest of the country.”

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