The California Supreme Court has affirmed that “labels matter” to both buyers and sellers of consumer products. “They serve as markers for a host of tangible and intangible qualities consumers may come to associate with a particular source or method of production.” California protects consumers from mislabeling through a number of laws, including possible class action lawsuits under the Consumers Legal Remedies Act (Civil Code §§ 1750 et seq.), unfair competition laws (Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 17200 et seq.) and false advertising laws (Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 17500 et seq.)
Aside from California’s general false labeling laws, there are specific laws and regulations regarding organic product labeling. The California Organic Products Act (COPA), generally requires that multi-ingredient cosmetics labeled or sold as organic contain at least 70% organically produced ingredients. But COPA is designed to work in concert with Federal regulations that direct baseline standards for production, labeling and sale of organic products. The California Supreme Court recently addressed whether the Federal regulations of organic products in some manner preempt or supersede California’s consumer protection laws, so that only the very limited Federal remedies can be pursued when there are alleged violations of organic labeling laws.
In Quesada v. Herb Thyme Farms, Inc., the California Supreme Court determined that California’s general laws prohibiting labeling misrepresentation do not conflict with the Federal laws concerning organic production, labeling and sale, but rather complement those Federal laws by allowing additional remedies to be pursued when those laws are broken by fraudulent organic product labeling. The Supreme Court observed that “permitting state consumer fraud actions would advance, not impair” the goals of providing “a level playing field” to manufacturers of organic products and “enhance consumer confidence in meaningful labels and reduce the distribution network’s reluctance to carry organic products.” From this perspective, where products are fraudulently mislabeled as organic, “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.”
The result for manufacturers, distributors and resellers is that organic product labeling can create concerns at multiple levels, including federal and state regulatory liability, and class actions under strong state consumer protection laws. All those involved in the chain of manufacturing and distribution of products labeled as organic should consult with experienced counsel to protect themselves from potential adverse outcomes that can come from several directions. Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys are well versed in helping their clients proactively avoid and resolve such problems.