Why CSPI's Loyalty Card Suit Has No Merit and Does Not Promote Food Safety

Following the playbook it has followed in the past with sodium and other issues, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has filed yet another complaint of very questionable legal merit to promote a policy agenda. This time CSPI seeks to compel all retailers to use loyalty cards as a recall alert system.

Some retailers use their loyalty card systems to alert customers of product recalls. Other retailers do not. Retailers who don't use loyalty cards as a recall alert system may have a variety of legitimate reasons why they don't or can't create the technology that CSPI wants a court to order retailers to implement. For example, some may lack the technological ability, have privacy agreements with customers that do not allow loyalty cards to be used as a recall alert system, or have other legitimate privacy concerns.

Like CSPI's sodium litigation, this complaint has serious flaws. It seeks broad certification of a "nationwide class" of customers who bought recalled products and whom the retailer "did not advise that they had bought Recalled Products." Even supposing that the claims had some legal merit, few "common issues of fact and law" are apparent. State law varies on the type of consumer fraud claims asserted. Some putative class members surely did get notice of the recall (through means other than loyalty cards).

On the merits, the claims are problematic because we suspect that many (and perhaps most) jurisdictions do not recognize a retailer’s affirmative duty to create some technology to alert customers of manufacturers’ recalls. The complaint utterly fails to acknowledge that retailers employ mechanisms other than loyalty cards to assure customers are aware of recalls.

On its face, a claim for breach of the warranty of merchantability is completely incongruent with a request that the court order retailers to employ new technologies. And, a loyalty card is not a good subject to the warranty of merchantability.

What might be most shameful about CSPI's complaint is its conflict with the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which CSPI purports to support. Section 211 of the FSMA modifies the Reportable Food Registry to enhance consumer notification of Class I recalls by grocery stores. FDA is tasked to, "[n]ot more than 1 year after the date of enactment of the [FSMA,] . . . develop and publish a list of acceptable conspicuous locations and manners" for grocery stores to notify customers of Class I recalls. CSPI (as well as anyone else) will have the opportunity to submit comments to FDA as part of the rule-making process.

Even if CSPI were somehow successful in its litigation, the outcome of the litigation may be supplanted or even in direct conflict with the FDA's rulemaking and the FSMA. Litigation is rarely a productive, efficient or useful way to create industry regulation. Litigation in the wake of legislation creating the actual policy that CSPI seeks to promote seems utterly wasteful and counterproductive.

Trademarking Green/Eco-Friendly Food - What You Need To Know

By Guest Blogger Jere Webb

It is evident that virtually every business now is trying to position itself as being “green”. For a discussion of restrictions on “green advertising”, particularly the FTC’s green ad guidelines (the “Green Guides”), and similar efforts at the state level, see “Green Claims Advertising – What You Can Say and What You Can’t”. The FTC is reviewing the Green Guides and likely will amend them in the near future. For comments submitted in the review process and additional information, see Green Guides.

The newer arena is green trademarks. The United States Patent and Trademark Office is now routinely rejecting, based on descriptiveness, multiword trademarks, that start with or contain the word GREEN. An example is the mark GREEN JOURNEY for hybrid cars. But in the same application, the applicant sought to register for clothing, and the Trademark Office accepted the mark, but with a disclaimer of the word GREEN. It found that the two word mark was merely “suggestive” of clothing, not “descriptive”. See "Green" Trademarks Face Hostile Climate in USPTO.

For an example of a green mark that passed muster, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) recently reversed an examining attorney’s descriptiveness refusal for the mark GREEN INDIGO for clothing, finding it to be an “incongruous” term for clothing and therefore merely suggestive and not descriptive. The case is In re Jones Investment, Inc. (TTAB Jan. 21, 2009.)

The lesson is: If you want to include the word “GREEN” in a trademark, some careful review and advice from a trademark lawyer is in order.

Want to read more? See “Eco-Friendly Claims Go Unchecked” (USA Today June 22, 2009). The FTC’s brochure “Sorting Out Green Advertising Claims” can be found here.

Sustainability and Consumer Confidence in Food Safety

For food sellers interested in promoting a “sustainable” brand and inspiring food safety confidence in their consumers, meet Food Alliance. Food Alliance “is a nonprofit organization that certifies farms, ranches and food handlers for sustainable agricultural and facility management practices.” It bills itself as “the most comprehensive certification program for sustainably produced food in North America.”

I’ve recently joined the Food Alliance Board of Directors (in fact, I’m headed to Portland today for a board meeting). My hope is to assist Food Alliance in becoming more widely accepted and mainstream. Credible third-party certification, such as Food Alliance provides, offers a transparent pathway to sustainability of our food supply and consumer confidence in food safety.

Food Alliance takes a holistic approach that is broader and more dynamic than organic certification, which does nothing to address food contamination from pathogens such as Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria (in fact, many experts believe that organically grown food may be more likely to be contaminated by these pathogens). By way of example, Food Alliance certification standards, among other things, address “soil and water quality,” “ensure the health and humane treatment of animals,” “conserve energy and water,” and “ensure quality control and food handling safety.”

For more on why a holistic, independent third-party certification correlates with food safety (and accompanying consumer confidence), I’d suggest reading this op-ed piece co-authored by Food Alliance Executive Director Scott Exo, which was written earlier this year in the wake of the PCA peanut recall.

Court Rules That Retailers Have No Duty to Investigate Suppliers Compliance with Organic Regulations

An important ruling was issued last week dismissing claims that milk produced by an organically certified dairy and labeled as organic was not really organic. Plaintiffs in the action asserted violations of various states’ laws because they claimed that they paid more for the milk because it was labeled as "organic.”

A federal judge in the Eastern District of Missouri granted a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss on a multitude of cases pending against the dairy, various retailers selling the dairy products and others (originally these suits were filed in various federal courts around the country but were consolidated for pretrial purposes by the United States Judicial Panel on Multi-District Litigation or MDL).

The judge ruled that claims against the dairy were preempted because a “conflict exists between federal and state law” (otherwise known as “conflict preemption”). As explained in the opinion, conflict preemption exists where “a party’s compliance with both federal and state law would be impossible or where state law would pose an obstacle to the accomplishment of congressional objectives.” Here, the court found that for “plaintiff’s claims to succeed, the Court would have to invalidate the regulatory scheme established under the OFPA [Organic Foods Production Act] and NOP [National Organic Program].” The court concluded that if plaintiffs were to prevail “producers would be liable even where fully certified and authorized to use these terms and seals.”

For the retailer defendants, the judge ruled that because plaintiffs’ claims against the dairy are preempted, “the retailer Defendants cannot be liable.” But the court went further and dealt explicitly with the plaintiffs’ claims that the retailers “should have investigated” the dairy’s activities to ensure compliance with the OFPA and NOP. The court rejected these arguments:

The Retailer Defendants did not have any duty to inspect [the dairy’s] facilities, or the facilities of any of their other organic producers. Imposing such a requirement “would place an undue burden on the distributor who is least likely to have access to such information.”

This should be good news for organic retailers. Hopefully, this decision will reduce their legal exposure to consumer labeling claims going forward.

Tracking the Food Safety Working Group - More or Less Legal Exposure For Food Sellers?

This week the Obama administration announced the launch of a new website for the recently formed food safety working group. Obama announced the formation of this group in March in the wake of the high-profile food safety issues surrounding PCA peanut products

This website will assist in tracking the efforts of the working group. As discussed previously on this blog, this group is expected to make recommendations aimed at detection, awareness and government reorganization. Possible examples include increasing funding to states to monitor food-borne illness, combining FDA and USDA food safety efforts, reexamining mandatory recall authority, increasing retail enforcement and implementing more aggressive consumer warnings.

What is not clear is whether the working group will look beyond just detection, awareness and reorganization to bolder initiatives that may result in less consumer illness and less legal exposure for food sellers. Bolder initiatives could include funding for irradiation, consumer food safety education, and fast-track development and implementation of technology that can sample food products for whole colonies of microorganisms

 

2009 Priorities for USDA in Food Safety

I just returned from ACI’s Second National Forum on Food-Borne Illness, which included several interesting presentations and discussions. One was by Dan Engeljohn, Deputy Assistant Administrator of the Office of Policy and Program Development at the Food Safety and Inspection Service (“FSIS”). Mr. Engeljohn spoke about FSIS’s priorities for “2009 and beyond.” Takeaways from this presentation include:

Non-O157 STECs

FSIS is increasingly concerned with strains of E. coli other than O157:H7. Non-O157:H7 strains such as E.coli O121:H19 and O111 are growing more prevalent in the environment. FSIS is putting additional resources into developing methodology for detection of non-O157 STECs.

As FSIS, CDC, FDA and local health departments develop this methodology, the industry can expect more reported outbreaks and more liability exposure. Most experts believe that many non- O157:H7 outbreaks go undetected. Increased focus on detection of non-O157 E. coli strains is yet another reason to examine the sufficiency of your companies' insurance limits.

Frozen, Not Ready to Eat Meals


According to Mr. Engeljohn, because of recent salmonella scares, FSIS remains concerned about “frozen, not ready to eat” meals and specifically “frozen, not ready to eat” poultry meals. He explained that “evidence is mounting that these products cannot be safely prepared unless salmonella is controlled in the source materials.” In other words, FSIS now believes that no amount of package labeling or consumer education can prevent consumers from undercooking these meals.

FSIS jurisdiction over salmonella in poultry is limited. FSIS attempts restrict the sale of “frozen, not ready to eat” meals or impose more stringent standards against salmonella in poultry may be a reach for the agency. As discussed in Supreme Beef Processors v. USDA Salmonella, "is not an adulterant per se, meaning its presence does not require the USDA to refuse to stamp such meat 'inspected and passed.'" Absent statutory reform, FSIS action in this area may be challenged.

Listeria


Mr. Engeljohn stated that FSIS is “deeply concerned” about listeria. It believes that gains made in recent years at meatpacking plants may be undone by problems at supermarket deli counters. FSIS believes that little is being done to address critical control points at the retail level, such as proper cleaning and sanitizing of meat slicers. FSIS may be exploring ways to exercise more jurisdiction to regulate supermarket delis.

Importance of Experts At Outset of Outbreak

A few weeks ago, I gave a presentation at a CLE seminar about how to use and challenge expert witnesses in a food case. One of the interesting discussions that occurred during my talk was about the importance of retention of experts at an early stage, even before health department officials finalize their findings.

Given the limited resources of most state and local health departments, I have always believed there is little to lose by offering the assistance of credible and known epidemiologists, microbiologists, etc. Additional resources in an outbreak investigation (and, therefore, additional investigation) can mean the difference between the health department pointing at your client and the health department pointing at another source. Several other defense lawyers, and, surprisingly, state health department officials, agreed. Examples of successful early intervention were elicited.

FSIS to Start Posting Plant Testing Data

I wrote earlier about Dr. David Goldman's talk at the ACI Food-Borne Illness Litigation conference and his comments regarding supermarkets. Another significant issue concerns posting by FSIS of microbiological testing results from meat and poultry plants on its Web site. Continue Reading...

Mitigating Supermarket Liability

Last week I had the privilege of attending and speaking at the American Conference Institute’s foodborne illness conference in Scottsdale, Arizona. One of the other speakers was David Goldman, M.D., Ph.D., Assistant Administrator of the Office of Public Health Science, Food Safety and Inspection Service (“FSIS”), United States Department of Agriculture (“USDA”). Dr. Goldman provided some interesting information about foodborne contamination from supermarkets. Continue Reading...