A recent Ninth Circuit case again raises serious questions as to whether there are any clearly defined legal standards as to when a food label is misleading and when it’s not. Manufacturers who are in compliance with federal standards for labeling may still be liable under state law.
In Williams v. Gerber, the Ninth Circuit, reversing the district court, reinstated a putative class action that alleged labeling on “fruit juice snacks” (1) constituted misrepresentation and breach of warranty under California common law and (2) violated California’s statutes on unfair competition and consumer law. The district court had granted a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), finding that statements on the label “were not likely to deceive a reasonable consumer, particularly given that the ingredient list was printed on the side of the box.”
Here’s the label in question:
In particular, the appellate court did not approve that the product, made of white grape juice, featured photographs of a variety of fruit on the label. The court also found misleading the statement that the product was made with “fruit juice and other all natural ingredients.” The product contained in addition to all-natural ingredients some ingredients the Ninth Circuit believed may not be “all natural.” The court believed that the statement, though not untruthful, should have disclosed more information.
Troubling in the court’s decision is that full nutritional and ingredient information was printed in similar size print on the same label. Even the court acknowledged that “reasonable consumers expect that the ingredient list contains more detailed information about the product . . . .” As a practical matter, the only way manufacturers can mitigate against these types of putative class actions is to involve lawyers directly in the marketing and labeling process. Under the world imagined in the Williams case, legal training seems to be a prerequisite to understanding which labels may give rise to litigation and which may not.