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Court okays consumer fraud actions against food mislabeling

The federal government, through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has the authority to regulate the labeling and marketing of organic foods. It also gives permission to retailers to affix the word 'organic' on the labels of approved products. For that reason, a California state court ruled that a consumer could not bring a state class action against a grower and seller of herbs that billed its herbs as being 100 percent organic. The plaintiff alleged that the seller committed consumer fraud because it knew that it was really marketing a product that had non-organic materials mixed in with organic.

The defendant, Herb Thyme Farms, had argued that the federal agency gave it permission to use the organic label and that federal law pre-empted the state action. The plaintiff-consumer appealed to the California Supreme Court, which overturned the decision and ruled that the state court action for consumer fraud could continue despite the primacy of federal law. The Court, in a unanimous decision, explained that the state action did not go against federal authority but rather complemented the efforts of the federal government to define and identify the existence of true organic products.

Citizens of California can now clearly file class action suits in state court, alleging violations of state law prohibitions against deceptive product advertising and labeling. The decision of the Court revives the dismissed class action and sends it back for further proceedings. The plaintiff must still prove her case and convince the trial judge to certify the class.

She must prove her charge that the grower was mixing regularly grown products in with the organically grown ones. The California Supreme Court also pointed out that when Congress started to regulate organic product labeling, it left to the states the power to continue to police consumer fraud abuses relating to improper use of the 'organic' characterization. The Court also explained that the state had a history for two hundred years of regulating such local policy matters that were directly related to protecting consumers.

Source:, "California Ruling Opens Door to 'Organic??? Food Lawsuits", Josh Long, Dec. 10, 2015

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