Californians Become Organic Watchdogs

A new law allows citizens to sue for false organic claims, strengthening the organic label.

by Lisa Munniksma
PHOTO: WFIU Public Radio/Flickr

Did you know that federal law prohibits a consumer from suing a farmer or company for false organic claims? I didn’t know that until earlier this month when California passed a law that says consumers in its state can, in fact, file lawsuits against food products falsely labeled organic. In other states, it’s up to state and federal officials to police organic claims—individuals don’t have that right.

This change in law stems from a class-action lawsuit against California’s Herb Thyme Farms, which was growing both Certified Organic and conventional herbs, packaging them together, and selling the whole lot as organic. That’s false advertising and abuse of the organic certification program.

As a Farmer

As a farmer, you can appreciate the additional work, expense and worry that goes into producing Certified Organic products. You might have even been burned by a fellow farmer in your community who was passing off his food as “organic” when he was not using organic practices or wasn’t Certified Organic. There are reasons that food bearing the organic label fetches a higher price—costs to be certified and higher production costs among them—and it’s not right that a farmer who doesn’t bear these costs should be able to profit against those who do.

This is a good time to remind you that if you want to claim your products as “organic,” you need to have USDA certification if you sell more than $5,000 in farm products per year, lest you might be subject to one of these lawsuits!

As a Consumer

Then there’s the consumer side of this organic-equity equation, too. Say what you will about the holes in the USDA National Organic Program—it still has more integrity than many labeling claims. As a consumer, you have a right to know that you’re paying for food produced by the standards that are important to you. I’m not pro-litigation—I think a lot of the lawsuits and legislation that I read about are ridiculous—but I do think we should all have the ability to say something when we’ve been mislead.

California tends to be the birthplace of forward-thinking food movements, so my hope is we’ll see pro-consumer laws like this coming to additional states soon.

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