(UPDATED COVERAGE, 4:30 p.m.) A California lawsuit accuses HerbThyme Farms, Compton, Calif., of selling conventionally grown herbs as organic.
Courthouse News Service reported HerbThyme Farms faces a class action lawsuit that claims the company “played California consumers for fools” by labeling and selling organic herbs that weren’t organic.
Plaintiffs allege HerbThyme took advantage of the organic foods movement when it “slapped higher price tags on its products, and turned a tidy — albeit illicit — profit” for conventionally grown herbs it labeled as “Fresh Organic,” according to Courthouse News Service.
In a letter sent to customers, HerbThyme said it takes "the allegations very seriously and will defend our products and reputation vigorously."
Additionally, the company said it conducts "regular internal reviews" of its organic products but "there were a few incidents in the past when employees engaged in irregular practices. As soon as that came to our attention, we immediately terminated those employees."
In response, HerbThyme said it established an anonymous hotline with an outside company for employees to report problems and has "enhanced" its quality and food safety programs.
"We are very sorry this happened but want to assure you that we have taken corrective action to make sure it does not continue," the company said in the statement.
The attorney representing plaintiffs, Raymond Boucher, did not return a request for comment.
HerbThyme is the largest grower, shipper and marketer of California grown conventional and certified organic fresh culinary herbs in the U.S. HerbThyme Farms has more than 200 acres of conventional farmland and 150 acres dedicated to the growing of USDA certified organic herbs. HerbThyme Farms grows and ships more than five million pounds of fresh herbs annually.
The class seeks restitution, damages and an injunction, alleging unjust enrichment, fraud and violations of the California business and consumer laws.
A March audit of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program found the program, in some cases, did not enforce regulations and lacked residue tests on certified organic products. In particular, the audit found fault with the lack of oversight of the California State Organic Program, overseen by the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
Although California has more than 2,000 certified organic operations, deficiencies “resulted in reduced assurance that the state’s certified organic operations and their products meet regulatory requirements,” according to the audit. The state has until the end of the month to rectify the concerns raised in the audit, or the USDA will “initiate appropriate enforcement actions,” according to the audit.