In Quesada v. Herb Thyme Farms, Inc., the California Court of Appeals held that state law labeling and deceptive trade practices claims arising from alleged mislabeling of organic products were preempted by the National Organic Program. The plaintiff sought review by the California Supreme Court which granted the petition on the question of “whether the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 . . . preempts state consumer lawsuits alleging that a food product was falsely labeled ’100% Organic’ when it contained ingredients that were not certified organic under the California Organic Products Act of 2003” (“COPA”).

The plaintiff claimed that Herb Thyme mixed organic and conventionally grown herbs and marketed the resulting product under its “100% Organic” label. The plaintiff sued Herb Thyme under California laws which prohibit (1) unfair and deceptive trade practices; (2) false advertising; (3) unfair competition; and (4) fraud. On appeal, the plaintiff added the claim that Herb Thyme also violated COPA (California’s state administered organic certification program created under the Organic Food Production Act of 1990, 7 U.S.C. § 6501 (“OFPA”)).

The Court of Appeals held that whether plaintiff’s claims were premised under COPA or OFPA, “Congress made clear its intention to preclude private enforcement through state consumer lawsuits in order to achieve its objective of establishing a national standard for the use of ‘organic’ and ‘USDA Organic’ in labeling agricultural products.” Though the USDA, California’s Secretary of Food and Agriculture, and California’s Director of the Department of Health were authorized to impose civil penalties for violations of either state or federal organic regulations, “state consumer law claims against a certified organic producer seeking to hold it accountable for representing its products as organic when in fact the products were not, are preempted.”

Opening briefs before the California Supreme Court will be filed later this month, so it is likely to be awhile before we get the California Supreme Court’s final word on the subject.