The California Supreme Court is set to decide whether consumers can file lawsuits in state court alleging food products are falsely labeled "organic" under California law.
The ruling expected Thursday follows a lower court decision that barred such suits on the grounds that they were not permitted by federal law. Congress only wanted state and federal officials to prosecute organic food violations in order to create a national standard for organic foods, a division of the 2nd District Court of Appeal decided in 2013.
At issue are allegations in a lawsuit by consumer Michelle Quesada that Herb Thyme Farms, Inc. — one of the nation's largest herb producers — mixed organic and non-organic herbs, but falsely labeled the product "organic."
The company said in court documents it had been authorized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to use the organic label. Allowing individual lawsuits challenging that designation would open the door to a patchwork of standards for the term "organic" that would defeat the goal of a national organic foods marketplace, the company said.
"If a lone consumer can second-guess the USDA's certification, 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," Mark Kemple, an attorney for Herb Thyme Farms, wrote in a 2014 brief to the California Supreme Court.
Raymond Boucher, an attorney for Quesada, said a ruling in his client's favor would help people ensure products are accurately and appropriately labeled.
"It will give private citizens an opportunity to bring corporations into court when necessary to help police this important and vital area," he said.
Quesada's lawsuit seeks to represent consumers who "fell victim to Herb Thyme's scheme to mislead consumers into paying premium prices for impostor products," her attorneys wrote in a court filing.