You’re all aware that federal regulators don’t take kindly to false labeling and advertising. Whether it’s food, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, supplements, or anything else you eat, drink, chew, smear, or pop, you never want to claim something about your product that isn’t true or at least doesn’t comply with regulatory standards. This is especially true with organic products. The USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) has clearly defined when certain ingredients and products are and are not allowed to be called organic. And while most companies have spent considerable resources ensuring compliance with these federal standards, a recent court ruling may have rendered those efforts incomplete.
In Segedie v. Hain Celestial Grp., Inc., the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York asserted that compliance with federal laws and regulations involving organic claims does not safeguard a company against other types of legal action. The case was brought by a group of consumers who believed several ingredients in Hain’s food and skin products were not organic, as the labeling and marketing claimed. Even though they were all legally classified as organic under NOP standards, the consumers felt otherwise, and filed suit under state consumer protection laws.
After the plaintiffs filed the complaint, Hain filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that federal laws and regulations preempted any state action brought by private consumers who believe they know more than the federal agency that sets the standards. Federal preemption – the constitutional principle establishing that state law cannot trump or interfere with a federal law involving the same issue – is a hallmark of American jurisprudence. But in this case, the court ignored the time-honored tradition and permitted the suit to move forward. It held that no conflict existed between federal law and the plaintiff’s theories under state consumer laws.
This case is far from over; but a dangerous precedent has been set. A federal court has legally established that a company who has done all it can to remain compliant with federal regulations involving its organic products may not actually be compliant. It may, in fact, be a target of law suits brought by plaintiffs, using multiple theories under multiple laws, who believe they get to establish the standard for what is and is not organic. If your company produces, markets, or sells organic products, you should seek advice from an experienced FDA attorney to help guide you through this emerging area of legal and regulatory uncertainty.