(UPDATED COVERAGE, Jan. 9) The California Court of Appeals ruled consumers do not have the right to sue food producers for alleged violations of the Organic Foods Protection Act because such actions would undermine federal enforcement.
Consumers and others can, however, pursue complaints and concerns about organic produce and other organic foods via the U.S. Department of Agriculthre’s National Organic Program.
Miles McEvoy, deputy adminstrator of the program said he could not comment specifically on the California court ruling.
“Through enforcement, USDA’s National Organic Program creates a level playing field by taking action against farmers and businesses that violate the law and jeopardize consumer confidence in organic products,” McEvoy said.
“Anyone can submit complaints of alleged regulatory violations. Each complaint is investigated. We value organic community and consumer input to ensure that organic products maintain their integrity.”
California resident Michelle Quesada sought the appeals court decision after a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge dismissed her class action case against Herb Thyme Farms Inc., Pico Rivera, Calif.
Quesada contends the company marketed a mix of conventional and organic herbs in packaging labeled as certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to court documents.
“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,” the three-judge panel said in the appeal ruling.
The judges’ decision states the USDA has primary jurisdiction to enforce provisions of the National Organic Program, including certification and compliance.
Although the California decision is not binding on other states, it can be cited and used as case law in such disputes.
The appeals court judges said Quesada “changed position” in the course of her appeal, switching to the argument that Herb Thyme Farms violated the California Organic Products Act. The judges’ decision states the USDA is the only entity with jurisdiction in cases of alleged violations of organic regulations, regardless of the specific statute cited by Quesada.
Even in states like California, which have their own organic laws on the books, consumers do not have the right to sue organic producers, the decision states, because the federal Organic Foods Protection Act of 1990 gives the USDA the power of certification and compliance enforcement.