For anyone not familiar with the legal framework governing “organic” claims, first a brief summary. The Organic Food Production Act of 1990 (OFPA) established a process for organic certification by the United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Marketing Service, National Organic Program (NOP). Under the OFPA and NOP’s implementing regulations, a food manufacturer that wants to use an organic claim for a food product must first design an organic system plan (OSP). The manufacturer’s OSP plan details what ingredients and what manufacturing processes will be used. An accredited certifying agent then reviews the OSP, performs an on-site inspection, and determines whether both the facility and the food products comply with the organic standards and may carry an organic claim. The certifying agent is not employed by the federal government. However, NOP accredits the certifying agents, and also may suspend certifying agents. In addition, NOP may impose penalties on fraudulent or non-compliant producers.
Pursuant to this framework, a food product may carry an “organic” claim provided that the food contains no more than 5% non-organic ingredients that are included in the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (National List).
In recent years, on several occasions, consumers have brought actions against companies for marketing organic foods, notably infant formula, alleging that these products were falsely labeled organic. Specifically, plaintiff consumers claimed that the products were not organic because some of the ingredients, primarily nutrients, were not listed as “allowed” on the National List. Not surprisingly, defendants filed motions to dismiss arguing preemption in these cases. They argued that the products had been certified organic by an accredited certifying agent.
In the first case of this kind, Sedegie v. Hain Celestial Grp., Inc., the District Court of the Southern District of New York concluded that state-law enforcement actions would enhance instead of obstruct the purposes of the OFPA, and rejected the preemption argument. The Court in Hain Celestial acknowledged the goals of federal regulations, i.e., “(1) to establish national standards governing the marketing of certain agricultural products as organically produced products; (2) to assure consumers that organically produced products meet a consistent standard; and (3) to facilitate interstate commerce in fresh and processed food that is organically produced.” It also recognized that the Eighth Circuit had concluded, in In re Aurora Dairy Corp. & Organic Milk Mktg. & Sales Practices Litig., 621 F.3d 781 (8th Cir. 2010), that conflict preemption applied and precluded similar claims. However, the District Court distinguished Aurora Dairy and concluded that even though the products at issue in Hain Celestial were certified organic by an accredited certifying agent, they did not comply with the standard of the OFPA. Although NOP had determined that for the time being the nutrients at issue could be included in organic foods, the Court found that NOP was wrong and allowed the action to proceed.
In subsequent cases, district courts have appeared to follow Aurora Dairy, and have recognized that allowing state law actions against foods that were organic certified in accordance with NOP standards would result in inconsistency across the country and undermine interstate commerce. See Marentette Labs v. Abbott, 201 F. Supp. 3d 374, 376 (E.D.N.Y. 2016); and Organic Consumers Ass’n v. Hain Celestial Grp., Inc., Case No. 1:16-cv-00925, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1053 (D.D.C. Jan. 3, 2018). According to the judges in these cases, allowing this type of case to proceed would defeat at least one of the goals of the OFPA –to have a national standard for organic claims. If plaintiffs were to prevail, “a savvy consumer would know that the [products] are not considered ‘organic’ in [one place], but would wonder why they were labeled as ‘organic’ elsewhere.” Organic Consumers Ass’n at 15. Also, a success for plaintiffs would undermine interstate commerce.
The case for preemption was further strengthened in March 2018, when the Court of Appeals of the Second Circuit affirmed the lower court’s ruling in Marentette. Marentette v. Abbott Laboratories, No. 17-62-cv, (2d Cir. 2018). The Court of Appeals concluded that “There is simply no way to rule in [the plaintiffs’] favor without contradicting the certification decision, and, through it, the certification scheme that Congress enacted in the OFPA.” The goal of the OFPA is a single, national organic-certification standard to facilitate interstate commerce. The Court had no doubt that state-law claims that force the courts to “look behind” USDA’s certification of a product “are an obstacle to the federal scheme.”
Hopefully, Marentette, together with the Eighth Circuit decision, In re Aurora Dairy Corp. & Organic Milk Mktg. & Sales Practices Litig., and the trial court rulings mentioned above will be sufficient to have consumer-class-action lawyers think more than twice before filing a lawsuit claiming improper organic certification.