Food Labeling

Consumers Have a Right to Sue Over Fake Organic Food, Cali Court Rules

State and federal prosecutors aren't the only ones with the authority to question organic food labeling ruled the state Supreme Court.


Tim Psych/Flickr

The California Supreme Court has paved the way for consumers to sue over foods falsely labeled "organic." The Thursday decision reverses a lower court ruling that only state and federal prosecutors could challenge organic food labeling. 

The case comes from a lawsuit filed by California resident Michele Quesada, who alleged that Herb Thyme Farms' "organic" herbs actually contained a mix of organic and non-organic plants. The company countered that it had been granted permission by Department of Agriculture authorities to use the organic label. 

In 2013, the 2nd District Court of Appeals held that Quesada had no standing to bring the lawsuit in the first place, since Congress intended only state and federal officials to have the authority to police organic food. This was necessary order to facilitate national standards for organic labeling, it said.  

But California's high court disagreed, holding that federal law does not stop consumers from filing civil lawsuits against foodmakers. In fact, allowing consuming to challenge inaccurately labeled products only furthers the goal of stopping food fraud. 

"State lawsuits alleging intentional organic mislabeling promote, rather than hinder, Congress's purposes and objectives," wrote Associate Justice Kathryn Werdegar in the Supreme Court's unanimous decision, which reinstated Quesada's lawsuit. 

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  1. Organic food has an actual definition?

    Is food fraud an actual problem?

    1. Welcome to the future.

      I’d offer you some ice cream, but all I have is this frozen dairy treat.

      1. This is how I converted my < 8 yo son to some amount of Libertarianism.

        I told him when I was growing up, the government was telling people to eat ice milk rather than ice cream because it had less fat.

        I told him it tasted gross, and now we know the milk fat was good for you.

        Now he refers to the government as “that thing that makes a lot of mistakes.”

        1. Nice.

          Reward your son with what might be the best ice cream evar to really drive the point home.

          1. Looks awesome.

            Since I’m a cosmo I’ve always been partial to the flavors at Capogiro Gelato in Philly.

            1. Man… I wish there was a place here like that. When I want gelato, I usually have to get Talenti or Ciao Bella.

        2. milkshakes are good. oh MISTAKES, nevermind.

    2. Depends on what definition of the word “organic” you use.

      1. I don’t believe that there is a legal definition but what fun is power if it’s not arbitrarily enforced.

        1. USDA has an official definition of organic that they use for labeling regulations.

          1. And a number of states have their own definitions.

          2. “USDA has an official definition of organic provided to it by a group of parties that have an interest in subverting market forces that they use for labeling regulations.”

            Omission restored.

        2. Sorry, trying for a joke.

          I meant that food generalyl qualifies as organic because it is made of organic chemicals which are well defined.

          1. You expect the kind of people who buy ‘organic’ food to be science literate? They don’t even understand that the product they’re paying more for is at best no better than the standard stuff, and most oftentimes has negative externalities that make it worse.

    3. I would think that, if “organic” is a statutorily defined term, a food manufacturer represented that its product met that definition, and a consumer purchased the product in reliance on that representation, it would be a clear case of fraud. I’m not sure why this ruling was necessary or newsworthy.

      That said, I see serious issues regarding proof and imagine the average consumer would have significant trouble getting past the summary judgment phase. Additionally, unless such a case is brought as a class action suit, I can’t imagine it being worth anyone’s time.

      1. “unless such a case is brought as a class action suit”


      2. The company countered that it had been granted permission by Department of Agriculture authorities to use the organic label.

        Whatever you may think the word “organic” means, if it fits the legal definition then it fits the legal definition. I don’t see how this woman has a suit unless she’s alleging that the company submitted a fradulent statement with the Dept of Ag over the organicosity of their product. If they submitted their actual product or ingredient list to the Dept of Ag and asked “can we legally call this organic?” and the Dept of Ag said yes, then that’s it. If she thinks what they’re selling isn’t organic enough to suit her it seems her problem is with what the Dept of Ag defines as “organic”. (But I suspect this woman doesn’t know or care one bit one way or the other about “organic” – she’s just a front for some trial lawyer looking to get his bite in.)

      3. It’s defined by the USDA Organic Board which has been captured by Driscoll’s and the rules are written to advantage organic food producers.

        Chickens, for example, require organic feed to be organic? unless organic feed is twice the cost of conventional feed in which case you can use conventional feed and still remain organic.

    4. There are varying state laws and regulations regarding what can be labeled as organic. There have been since at least the 80s, maybe even sooner.

      1. Gosh, it’s almost like the only common thread is “permission to soak the consumer”.

  2. Oh this is beautiful. They love to have their cake and eat it too.

    First, we have to have government standards because it’s the wild west out there and the evil corporations are beguiling us with unregulated words.

    Then, well we can’t trust the regulators to get it right, so anybody can invent a definition of a word and then sue anybody who didn’t get the memo.

    1. Only if it’s organic cake.

      1. Baked by a non-Christian baker.

    2. Did you know that the correct saying is “you can’t eat your cake and have it too”? True story.

      1. Somebody should notify the US court system.

      2. English is a language defined by usage, not by the OED or any other “authority”.

        ‘Eat your cake’ and ‘have your cake’ can be read as sequential phrases or they can be read as a dichotomy. In the latter case, the sequence is irrelevant. Most people interpret it as a dichotomy, so “have their cake and eat it too” is a valid usage.

        Consider yourself out-pedanted.

  3. I prefer orgasmic food

  4. A key part of the Capitalistic Free Market System is the ability to go to court to settle grievances.

    1. A key part of the Capitalistic Free Market System mixed-market feel-good system is the ability to go to court to settle grievances convince sympathetic morons that your made-up grievances are worth millions of dollars out of someone else’s pockets


      1. I have to agree with Alice on this one.

        However, since the definition of ‘organic’ is highly subjective and the regulations are nothing more than arbitrary codifications of subjective biases, the case could not arise in a Free Market Court.

        1. Yes, Alice is “right” in the sense that what he said is true but has nothing to do with the case at hand.

  5. And let’s not even get started on the non-egg yolk mayonnaise.

    1. You say ketchup, I say catsup… and all the snooty people say kecap.

    2. That *(&^(*&^(& is everywhere in the UK. It’s all rapeseed oil. Which is apparently crap for you unless you process it in some painstakingly traditional way.

      1. Rapeseed oil is triggering

        1. That’s why we call it “Canola”.

          1. Well, I’m glad to see the council addressed that

      2. Egg yolk is an emulsifier. It would most likely be replaced with lecithin. The type of oil is an entirely different matter.

  6. This seems like a good decision to me. Why sit back and assume that the government regulators will consistently and effectively enforce the labeling? Of course, it’s the FDA that primarily decides what kind of labeling can be used, but if there’s any alternative enforcement out there, then alternative labeling should be possible, too.

    1. Yes, there weren’t enough hoops to jump through already.

  7. The California Supreme Court has paved the way for consumers to sue over foods falsely labeled “organic.”

    I for one would be royally pissed if a grocer sold me food labeled “organic” and it turned out not to contain any carbon at all.

    1. Even if it was “organic sea salt”?

  8. “Organic” shouldn’t be any different from “kosher” in the way it’s handled. Because “organic” is just “kosher for new-agers.” It’s a religious designation, and the FDA shouldn’t have any business defining or certifying it. Unfortunately, the government has trouble steering clear of religious entanglements when the religion in question is worship of Almighty Unlimited Government (“Blessed Be Its Holy Name!”)

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