Consumers have a right to file lawsuits under California law alleging food products are falsely labeled "organic," the state Supreme Court ruled.
Thursday's ruling overturned a lower court decision that barred such suits on the grounds that they were superseded and not allowed by federal law.
Congress wanted only state and federal officials to police 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.
But the state Supreme Court said allowing consumer lawsuits would further congressional goals of curtailing fraud and ensuring consumers can rely on organic labels.
"Accordingly, state lawsuits alleging intentional organic mislabeling promote, rather than hinder, Congress's purposes and objectives," Associate Justice Kathryn Werdegar wrote for the unanimous court.
The ruling will have an impact beyond California's borders, said Marsha Cohen, a professor at UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.
"Nothing in here is irrelevant to a parallel case in another state," she said. "The court is simply saying federal law does not supersede our consumer protection functions."
At issue were 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 then falsely labeled the product "100 % organic." The term "organic" means the food was produced using sustainable practices and without synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, or genetic engineering, according to the California Department of Public Health. The department says products labeled "100% organic" must consist of only organic ingredients.
A call to Cliff Neimeth, an attorney for Herb Thyme Farms, was not immediately returned.
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 it up to interpretation by a "lay jury," creating 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.
Werdegar said judges — not juries — would decide such lawsuits using the federal organic labeling standard.
Raymond Boucher, an attorney for Quesada, said the ruling was a big victory for consumers.
"When Ms. Quesada goes in to buy a product that's stamped as organic, she wants to know this truly is organic, and she can feel good about it," he said.
The state Supreme Court's ruling reinstates Quesada's lawsuit. The suit seeks to represent thousands of 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.