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Will California's 'Organic' Lawsuit Ruling Change Food Labeling?

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Since a ruling by California's 2nd District Court of Appeal in 2013, a consumer's lawsuit against a corporation for falsely labeling products as "organic" went something like this: "Sorry, can't."

That's because the ruling made it impossible for those lawsuits to even be heard. According to the court, it was not the state's job to police the "organic" label. Rather, it was the duty of the federal government. They're the ones who should be putting together a national standard after all, not the states.

But, that's all about to change. In December, the California Supreme Court overturned that decision.

While ruling on a case between a consumer and Herb Thyme Farms Inc. -- the former claiming the defendant mixed organic and non-organic herbs and labeled them all "100% organic" -- the court first had to decide whether or not they had jurisdiction to rule on the case. After mulling it over, the court figured any ruling would actually help the process of putting together a national standard:

"Accordingly, state lawsuits alleging intentional organic mislabeling promote, rather than hinder, Congress's purposes and objectives," Associate Justice Kathryn Werdegar wrote for the unanimous court.

So, while the specific suit has yet to be concluded, the biggest takeaway from the battle is that consumers can now file lawsuits against corporations for their improper "organic" claims. Will this help bring about much-needed change to how the label is regulated? Or will it simply mire the courts in an avalanche of lawsuits?

"I don't predict a surge of lawsuits," wrote Alexis Baden-Mayer, the Political Director for the Organic Consumers Association, in an email. "There are very few areas where the organic rules aren't being followed."

In other words, the Herb Thyme Farms suit is an outlier in terms of an organization trying to get around the regulations. Not to say there aren't others out there -- and now, they are more likely to be taken to court -- but this decision isn't going to suddenly overwhelm the system with consumers claiming their organic food isn't really organic.

That doesn't mean the whole landscape will remain untouched. Rather, Baden-Mayer expects more lawsuits involving areas where the "organic" label doesn't have strict regulations yet.

"We may see more lawsuits involving personal care products falsely labeled as 'organic,' an area that USDA doesn't police," Baden-Mayer wrote. "Or 'organic' infant formulas that have several synthetic ingredients in them."

The suits, then, could be a way towards figuring out what the organic label means across the entire spectrum of products, not just food. This may be ultimately the biggest effect this California Supreme Court decision has on the label.

"The USDA defines organic, and they enforce that definition for food," Baden-Mayer wrote. "So when consumers see other products, like body-care, labeled organic, they expect those products to meet the same standard. Now that there's a threat of enforcement, we'll see fewer body-care products labeled organic, but the ones that are, we'll know meet the same organic standard as food and that's a very high standard."

As for how this affects the "natural" label on foods -- which, remember, means absolutely nothing -- remains to be seen.

"The FDA has opened a public comment period up on the definition of 'natural,' so if a stricter definition were to be adopted, it could probably be enforced through the courts in a similar fashion," Baden-Mayer wrote. "Still, we're not going to see detailed regulations for 'natural' like we have for 'organic.'"

Perhaps the biggest thing to watch out for is if other states follow California's lead on the issue.

"I do think that California's decision, while not binding on other states, is a good precedent for other states to follow, and will likely act as a deterrent to organic fraud," Baden-Mayer wrote.

After all, there's a reason for the saying "As California goes, so goes the rest of the country."

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