Growers who falsely label their produce as organic may be sued for false advertising under state law even if the federal government has certified their farms as organic, the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday.
Labels matter, Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar wrote for the court.
"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," she said.
The decision revived a class-action lawsuit against Herb Thyme Farms Inc., a large herb grower with many farms throughout California.
Most of the company's farms grow herbs conventionally, but one farm is organic and has been properly certified as such, the court said.
The lawsuit contends that Herb Thyme processes its conventional and organic herbs together under an organic label and even sells some herbs grown entirely with chemicals as organic.
Herb Thyme argued unsuccessfully that such claims could not be brought in state court because the federal government has prime responsibility for overseeing such matters.
The company has denied the allegations in the lawsuit, and Mark D. Kemple, the grower's attorney, declined to comment.
Lower courts had ruled for the grower, saying the lawsuit would improperly undermine a federal law that establishes uniform national standards for organic production and labeling.