As we have blogged about, litigation regarding product labeling has been a hot topic within the food and beverage industry. A recent decision from the Northern District of California could hold interesting implications for Lanham Act claims centering on the labeling of products as “organic.” While the case, One God Faith, Inc. v. Hain Celestial Group, Inc., involved personal care products rather than agricultural products, the rationale used by the court in reaching its decision to dismiss the claims of the plaintiff is illustrative for the general category of “organic”-labeled products.
In One God Faith, plaintiff, a manufacturer of personal care and cosmetic products, including soap labeled as United States Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) certified “organic” or “Made with Organic” oils in compliance with USDA National Organic Program (“NOP”) standards, sued multiple defendants under § 43(a) of the Lanham Act alleging defendants falsely, misleadingly, and confusingly labeled and advertised similar products as “organic” even though they did not meet NOP standards for the designation, resulting in a loss of sales for plaintiff.
As we blogged about in our discussion of the POM v. Ocean Spray decision, pursuing a false advertising claim under the Lanham Act can be a difficult task for plaintiffs. When Congress enacted the Organic Food Products Act (“OFPA”) in 1990, the legislation that authorized the USDA to implement the NOP, it expressly declined to create a private right of action to enforce the statute or any of its implementing regulations. The plaintiff in One God Faith argued that the OFPA by its statutory language applies only to “agricultural products,” and the USDA has made clear that its comprehensive regulatory scheme governing the use of the term “organic” does not apply to personal care products, the category of products at issue in the case.
However, the court in One God Faith was not persuaded by this argument. While the court did find that it was undisputed that the USDA has declined expressly to impose the NOP standards on personal care products, this was not sufficient to justify the exercise of subject-matter jurisdiction by the Northern District. The court noted that the issue of amending existing regulations to include “organic” claims with respect to personal care products has generated significant recent discussion and that the USDA has asserted its authority over personal care products in other significant ways, including allowing producers and handlers of such products (including the plaintiff) to seek USDA certification under the NOP. As stated by the court, the mere fact that the USDA has not to date expressly imposed the NOP standards does not excuse plaintiff from exhausting available remedies under the USDA’s administrative appeal procedure. Consequently, the court held that granting the plaintiff its requested injunctive relief would negate the legislative bar on private actions and effectively enforce the NOP standards against defendants. As such, plaintiff’s complaint was dismissed for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.