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Court says USDA exclusive organics enforcer

Mateusz Perkowski

Capital Press

Consumer lawsuits alleging violations of national organic rules are preempted by federal law, according to the California Court of Appeal.

Consumers in California don’t have to right to sue food producers over alleged violations of organic standards, according to the state’s Court of Appeal.

Such lawsuits are preempted by federal law, which charges the USDA with enforcing organic standards and labeling, the ruling said.

“Limiting private enforcement furthers the congressional purpose and objective to nationalize organic labeling standards and to avoid the inevitable divergence of applicable state laws and enforcement strategies,” the opinion said.

The ruling stems from a complaint filed by consumer Michelle Quesada against Herb Thyme Farms, an herb grower in Pico Rivera, Calif.

The lawsuit claimed the farm labeled a package of herbs as “organic” even though it contained a mix of conventional and organic crops.

The plaintiff accused the company of false advertising, deceptive trade practices and other unlawful conduct under state consumer protection laws.

A three-judge state appellate panel has found that the lawsuit must be dismissed because it would undermine the consistency of federal organic rules.

While Congress did not “expressly” preclude such private complaints, they would “frustrate” the intent of federal law and thus are preempted, the ruling said.

Quesada argued that her claims should nonetheless be allowed to proceed because California has its own “state organic program,” or SOP.

The judges rejected this argument, ruling that California’s program is only meant to administer federal rules within the state — it doesn’t create its own organic standards or private rights of enforcement.

“This might lead to conflicting interpretations of the national organic standards in states with SOPs, which would affect interstate commerce and defeat Congress’s purpose in establishing federal and state government oversight to ensure a national organic standard,” the opinion said.

Capital Press was unable to reach an attorney for Quesada as of press time.

Mark Kemple, attorney for Herb Thyme Farms, said the ruling is good news not only for his client but other organic growers a well.

“You have to have one strike zone and one umpire,” he said.

The USDA has broad power over organic operations and can shut them down if they’re not complying with the rules, Kemple said.

If private parties were allowed to second-guess the agency with litigation, farmers wouldn’t be able to depend on organic certification, he said.

“You’re not going to have people throwing their hat into the organic ring, because there’s too much exposure,” Kemple said.

While the Court of Appeal ruling is only binding precedent within California, other courts can still use it as a guide in similar cases, he said.



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