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.

Judge Denies Class Action Status in McDonald's French Fry and Hash Brown Litigation

A lawsuit claiming that McDonald’s deceived the public about ingredients in its french fries and hash browns will not proceed as a class action. A federal judge in Chicago has denied the plaintiffs’ motion for class certification, characterizing the proposed class and subclasses as “too indefinite and overbroad.”

According to the court’s opinion, the potato suppliers who provide McDonald’s with its french fries and hash browns par-fry the potatoes in oil made of 99 percent vegetable oil and one percent natural beef flavor. The beef flavor is partly made from wheat bran and casein (a dairy product). McDonald’s restaurants then fry the potatoes in 100% vegetable oil prior to serving the products to customers. Plaintiffs allege that McDonald’s falsely claimed its french fries and hash browns were gluten, wheat, and dairy-free. They say that they never would have purchased the potato products if they knew that the fries and hash browns were partially fried in oil containing wheat bran and casein. McDonald’s corrected its disclosure in 2006.

The plaintiffs proposed a class consisting of all persons residing in the United States who purchased McDonald’s french fries or hash browns between February 2002 and February 2006 and who, at the time of purchase, had been diagnosed with celiac disease, galactosemia, autism, and/or wheat, gluten, or dairy allergies.

In rejecting class certification, U.S. District Judge Elaine Bucklo noted that none of the plaintiffs has suffered any physical injury from eating the potato products; indeed, she noted that “plaintiffs testified in their depositions that they were quite satisfied with the Potato Products they consumed.” Additionally, Judge Bucklo noted that proving economic damage would be an “evidentiary headache” because the court would be required to review potentially millions of letters proving plaintiffs’ medical diagnoses and the damage to each potential class member would be nominal: between $1.00 and $1.50. Finally, the court ruled a nationwide class action would be unmanageable because state laws at issue in the case vary too much to apply to plaintiffs from across the country.

The case is In re McDonald’s French Fries Litigation, MDL No. 1784.

Ivar's Turkey Soup Recall

Ivar Haglund was a Seattle legend.  In these parts, he was known only by his first name, the way you can refer to "Michael" when you're discussing basketball and people know you mean Michael Jordan.  His food is at Sea-Tac Airport, Safeco Field and Qwest Field.  From 1964 until it was discontinued for this year, he sponsored one of the largest fireworks displays in Seattle on the Fourth of July, which was called Fourth of Jul-Ivar's.  Every city, I imagine, has someone like Ivar, but he was ours.

Ivar's is known for seafood.  The original restaurant was called Acres of Clams, right on the waterfront.  His landmark Salmon House is on Lake Union next to Dale Chihuly's house and studio; you can sometimes see Chihuly with his trademark patch walking past Ivar's. 

I had no idea Ivar's made turkey soup until it was recalled.

You couldn't buy Ivar's turkey soup, more particularly "turkey-flavored egg noodle soup with turkey meat", even before it was recalled.  It is only sold to institutions.  I imagine it is a way of increasing revenue from by-products that might otherwise have to be thrown out or recycled.

So what was wrong with the soup?

Absolutely nothing.  Bring it by and I'll happily consume it (though not expecting it to be a high-end product, given the market).

Why then the recall?  Because the packaging didn't indicate that it contained milk and milk is a known allergen

Ordinarily, I might note also that vegans don't ingest milk products either, so the mislabeling might cause an issue with them.  And of course Jewish dietary laws prohibit the mixing of milk with poultry.  So in both cases, there might have been mislabeling issues unrelated to milk's status as an allergen.  However, vegans don't eat turkey anyway, and observant Jews only eat turkey that has been properly ritually slaughtered, as would be evidenced by a rabbi's stamp on the package, which I somehow doubt Ivar's had.  Incidentally, the rabbinical kosher stamp here in Seattle incorporates a Space Needle into the K

Preparation for Melamine Issues- Updating Crisis Management Plans and Insurance Coverage

While largely under the radar in the American press due to the compelling election cycle and historical meltdown in the financial markets, the news out of China concerning melamine has gone from bad to worse. Concern about Chinese dairies has morphed into a global crisis affecting what seems like an infinite number of products tainted with melamine.

Melamine has been intentionally introduced into animal feed, dairy products, pet food and other products because it can make diluted or poor-quality products appear to be higher in protein by elevating the total nitrogen content detected by some simple protein tests. Already, the FDA has identified a wide variety of products affected in the first wave of concerns about Chinese dairy products.

How should a food manufacturer or retailer prepare for a melamine issue? Any food company that imports any food ingredient or product from Asian markets should be concerned, and its first steps should be to update its crisis management plan and rehearse a melamine recall.

Food companies should also review with coverage counsel and their brokers whether they have—or can obtain—insurance coverage for financial exposure from melamine tainted products. Financially, a food company will be affected by a melamine issue in at least three ways: recall costs, loss of business and personal injury/consumer fraud claims. Standard comprehensive general liability (“CGL”) insurance may not cover any of these exposures. Most CGL policies do not cover recall costs. While recall and property insurance policies are available, the coverages offered by these policies also may be problematic.

Even personal injury or consumer fraud claims might be denied by CGL insurers. For example, many CGL policies will only provide coverage for occurances that arise out of events that are “accidental.” “Accident” is commonly defined as “a sudden, unforeseen or unintended event.” Even though a food company may have no knowledge of an upstream supplier’s fraudulent acts, some insurers are sure to argue that claims arising from products intentionally tainted by melamine are not covered.

The insurer's argument denying coverage is not a slam dunk and may not prevail. But, the key is to avoid (or minimize) the dispute with the insurer. To the extent possible, when placing insurance, a food company should obtain a representation or endorsement from its insurer that coverage will be extended to claims arising from melamine-tainted food.

Lessons from Toxic Rice and Chinese Dairies - Threats From Bioterrorism and Supplier Fraud

Manufacturer fraud and bioterrorism should be on the radar screen for any food producer. Apart from the meltdown in the U.S. financial markets and presidential politics, the big news this week is toxic rice from Southeast Asia and melamine-tainted dairy products from China. Both crises were caused by intentional contamination of food products by raw-materials suppliers with the apparent motivation to defraud food manufacturers and sellers.

Both (especially melamine-tainted dairy products) are causing a worldwide health scare and crisis in consumer confidence. Consumers outside of China may not be at serious risk, because the melamine-tainted dairy products are not sold as pure dairy products. Outside of China, Chinese dairy products are used only in small quantities as ingredients in products such as candy and coffee. U.S. and European Union consumers are at risk only when consuming unusually large quantities of these “nondairy” products.

Yet the consumer crisis inside and outside of China could have ameliorated dramatically but for failures in crisis management. Even the presumably government-controlled Chinese press understands this: “Crisis management is closely related to the brand and credibility of an enterprise, but many Chinese enterprises have not developed the capability to react properly when a crisis emerges . . . .”

Consistent with Western principles of crisis management, Chinese experts, according to the Chinese press, opine that “one principle of crisis management is to take a responsible attitude immediately and in a sincere manner, which is of great help for enterprises to rebuild their credibility.”

The press in China points to a company named Sanlu and concludes that “Sanlu, the center of the scandal, provided a bad example of crisis management. When it was first exposed, Sanlu refused to take the blame and passed the buck to innocent dairy farmers, which ignited great anger nationwide. . . . Sanlu didn’t openly admit its products were toxic until Sept. 11. It eventually recalled baby formula manufactured on and before Aug. 6. The scandal led to the fall of chairwoman Tian and the disappearance of all dairy products bearing the brand of Sanlu.”