The California Supreme Court recently made an unprecedented unanimous decision in Quesada v. Herb Thyme Farms, Inc., effectively protecting the rights of ordinary consumers to sue a corporation—in this case, the grower Herb Thyme—for knowingly misleading the public.
In the case of Herb Thyme, the company was found to have mislabeled commonly purchased herbs as “organic,” and raking in the additional premiums commanded by genuine organic produce.
OFPA Claims Rejected
The California Supreme Court’s ruling also means that it rejects the California Court of Appeals’s conclusion that the existing Organic Food Production Act (OFPA) of the Federal government effectively nulifies the plaintiff’s claims. The high court explained that the Quesada lawsuit actually supports the OFPA’s mission of improving consumer confidence in organic labels.
In its decision, the Court wrote, “Permitting state consumer fraud actions would advance, not impair, [OFPA’s] goals. Substitution fraud, intentionally marketing products as organic that have been grown conventionally, undermines the assurances the USDA Organic label is intended to provide. Conversely, the prosecution of such fraud, whether by public prosecutors where resources and state laws permit, or through civil suits by individuals or groups of consumers, can only serve to deter mislabeling and enhance consumer confidence.”
Why Is This Considered a Milestone Case?
One of the basic tenets of consumer rights in the United States is the idea of getting what you pay for. This ruling is important because it affirms the function of government: to protect the rights of ordinary Americans. When you choose to pay a higher price for a food item labeled as “organic,” you should get a product that’s actually just that. Not only is this a consumer rights issue, it’s also a public health concern. For example, if a food is marked gluten-free but is actually not, someone with Celiac disease who buys that product could suffer from severe health problems as a result.
Protecting the Organic Produce Industry
But that’s just scratching the surface of the issue. The bigger picture is that consumer fraud suits actually benefit the organic industry itself, protecting and preserving its integrity. Organic food isn’t easy to produce, which explains why it commands a premium price over ordinary produce. If growers can get away with intentionally mislabeling their produce as organic and get the premiums without being held liable, they’ll drive the honest organic growers out of business due to the unfair playing field. Ensuring these types of lawsuits are heard in court doesn’t just protect the consumers, it protects everyone in the organic food industry by implementing rules that guarantee fairness.
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