California Supreme Court to Review Whether the Organic Food Production Act of 1990 Preempts State Consumer Lawsuits Regarding Organic Mislabeling

June 9, 2014

By Riëtte van Laack

In Quesada v. Herb Thyme Farms, Inc., Plaintiff Quesada alleged that Herb Thyme Farms, Inc. (Herb Thyme) lied about the nature of its “Fresh Organic” line of herbs.  According to Plaintiff, Herb Thyme misrepresented its “Fresh Organic” products as 100% percent organic products when they were not.  Plaintiff claimed that “to increase profits and to keep pace with growing demand, Herb Thyme devised and carried out a scheme to take advantage of the popularity of the organic food movement by labeling and selling its non-organic products under its ‘100% Organic’ label.”  Allegedly, Herb Thyme mixed organic and conventional herbs and labeled the final product as 100% “Fresh Organic” products.  Ms. Quesada brought claims for (1) unfair and deceptive trade practices in violation of the Consumers Legal Remedies Act (CLRA); (2) violation of the false advertising law; (3) unlawful conduct in violation of the unfair competition law (UCL); and (4) unfair and fraudulent conduct in violation of the UCL.  (Apparently, the original complaint did not cite the California Organic Products Act of 2003 (COPA) or the Organic Food Production Act (OFPA)). 

Herb Thyme moved for a judgment on the pleadings, arguing that Ms. Quesada’s state law claims were preempted.  The trial court agreed that the OFPA expressly and impliedly preempted Plaintiff’s claim, and entered judgment against Plaintiff.

On appeal, Ms. Quesada argued that her action was based solely on the COPA, not on the OFPA, contending that Farm Raised Salmon Cases is controlling.  In that case, the California Supreme Court held that states are free to provide for private remedies under state law so long as state law requirements are identical to federal law requirements (see our previous post here). 

The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s ruling concluding that a state consumer lawsuit based on violations of COPA, or violations of the OFPA, would “frustrate the congressional purpose of exclusive federal and state government prosecution and erode the enforcement methods by which the [OFPA] was designed to create a national organic standard.”  It held that the doctrine of implied preemption foreclosed such claims.  According to the Court of Appeal, “a private right of action under the unfair competition law based on violations of COPA would conflict with the clear congressional intent to preclude private enforcement of national organic standards.”  The Court of Appeal distinguished this case from the Farm Raised Salmon Cases; Congress permitted states to enact a state organic certification program if it met the requirements of the Act, and was federally approved.  Accordingly, California, through COPA, essentially administers and enforces OFPA rather than its own state law.

Plaintiff petitioned the California Supreme Court for review.  On April 30, 2014, that Court granted the petition narrowing the question to “Whether the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 . . . preempts state consumer lawsuits alleging that a food product was falsely labeled ‘100% Organic’ when it contained ingredients that were not certified organic under [COPA].”