The Supreme Court of California recently ruled that the federal organic labeling program does not preempt a claim under California state law that a certified organic grower intentionally mislabeled conventionally grown produce as organic. The case, Quesada v. Herb Thyme Farms, Inc., No. S216305, 2015 WL 7770635 (Cal. Dec. 3, 2015), involved a consumer claim under California state law that Herb Thyme Farms sold "blended conventional and organic herbs . . . under the same "Fresh Organic" label and packaging" and packaged and sold "as organic some herbs that are entirely conventionally grown."
Herb Thyme Farms had successfully argued before the trial court, and court of appeal, that the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (7 U.S.C. §§ 6501-6522) ("Act") vested the United States Department of Agriculture with exclusive authority to regulate the labeling and marketing of organic products. The two courts disagreed on whether that the state law claims were expressly preempted by the Act but both courts agreed that such claims were impliedly preempted. The California Supreme Court disagreed.
First, the California Supreme Court agreed with appellate court that the Act did not expressly preempt state remedies. According to the Court, although the Act "federalizes" the term "organic" and certification of organic growers, the Court found no similar language of exclusivity in the provisions of the Act governing sanctions for misuse of the organic label. The Court noted that in several areas the Act only establishes a floor and permits stricter state regulation. On that basis, it was unwilling to find a Congressional intent to expressly bar state law remedies for mislabeled products. Finally, the Court noted that its decision on this point was consistent with every other court that had considered the question.
Second, the Court found that allowing state remedies would not stand as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress under the Act. The Court found that there was a strong presumption against preemption where state consumer protection laws regulate deceptive food labeling. The Court said that regulation of food labels was an area of traditional state concern and therefore a finding of preemption must be based on clear and manifest evidence of a contrary congressional intent. The Court found no such evidence. In fact, the Court concluded that allowing state remedies would advance, not impair the goals of the Act by deterring mislabeling and enhancing consumer confidence. The Court implied that preemption might exist for direct attacks on a company's certification and compliance with federal regulations but no such claims were involved in this case.
The scope and impact of the Court's ruling is unclear. For instance, the Court did not address whether a claim that a company's federally approved organic plan was inadequate was preempted or not because that question was not presented in this case. The court similarly noted that there were no claims that the company did not comply with federal regulations relating to its organic products. We anticipate that plaintiffs' counsel will seek to expand the scope of permissible claims involving organic products beyond the rather obvious claims in this case.