100 Percent Organic? Court Allows Consumer Lawsuits Over Mislabeled Foods

California residents will now be able to sue over improper use of the USDA label.

(Photo: Tang Ming Tung/Getty Images)

Dec 5, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

It used to be that if you discovered a product labeled “organic” that you purchased was in fact not organic, you were barred from suing the company for mislabeling it. That’s no longer the case in California, after the state supreme court reversed the decision of two lower courts—potentially changing the legal landscape for USDA-certified organic products across the country.

The ruling stems from a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of Michelle Quesada in 2011 against Herb Thyme Farms. The suit alleged that the company was selling conventionally grown herbs as organic and charging a premium for the product. The company, and others in the industry, argued that individual lawsuits would undermine the federal organic program and its oversight by the USDA.

“If a lone consumer can second-guess the USDA’s certification,” Mark Kemple, one of Herb Thyme’s attorneys, wrote in a 2014 brief to the state supreme court, “and a grower cannot rely on its federal authorization to use the term, the already high cost of production of such products will skyrocket, or more likely, there will be no organic products to enjoy.”

The state supreme court begged to differ, and Associate Justice Kathryn Werdegar wrote in the unanimous opinion that mislabeling prevents consumers “from correctly identifying the goods and services that carry the attributes they desire while also hampering honest producers’ attempts to differentiate their merchandise from the competition.” While the ruling only applies to California residents, it could open the door for personal legal challenges of organic labeling issues in other states as well.

The ruling—and the conflict itself—is yet another example of the gulf that exists between the role organic food has in many consumer’s lives, in which buying certified foods is in part a lifestyle choice, and the very bureaucratic set of standards (which include loopholes that sometimes allow for nonorganic processes to be used on certified organic crops) that underlie the USDA’s definition of “organic.”

As Raymond Boucher, the plantiff's attorney, told The Associated Press, “When Ms. Quesada goes in to buy a product that’s stamped as organic, she wants to know this truly is organic, and she can feel good about it.”

Now, if there’s reason to believe that that good feeling somehow rings hollow, consumers can sue.