Last week on January 3, 2013, sponsors of Initiative 522 (I-522), a measure that would require the labeling of certain genetically engineered foods, filed their petitions with the Washington Secretary of State’s Office for review.
The filing of I-522 comes in the wake of Proposition 37, a similar initiative that was ultimately rejected by California voters in November 2012. If enacted, I-522 would require that any food offered for retail sale in Washington that is, or may have been, entirely or partly produced with genetic engineering to be labeled as follows:
- In the case of a raw agricultural commodity, the package offered for retail sale must clearly and conspicuously display the words “genetically engineered” on the front of the package, or where such a commodity is not separately packaged or labeled, the label appearing on the retail store shelf or bin where such a commodity is displayed for sale must display the words “genetically engineered;”
- In the case of any processed food, the front of the package of such food must clearly and conspicuously bear the words “partially produced with genetic engineering” or “may be partially produced with genetic engineering;” and
- In the case of any seed or seed stock, the seed or seed stock container, sales receipt or any other reference to identification, ownership, or possession, must state clearly and conspicuously that the seed is “genetically engineered” or “produced with genetic engineering.”
Like Proposition 37, I-522 exempts certain food from the genetically engineered labeling requirements. Specifically, the following certified organic products, alcoholic beverages, medical foods, food sold for immediate consumption such as in a restaurant, products unintentionally produced with genetically engineered material, food made from animals fed or injected with genetically engineered material but not genetically engineered themselves, food processed with or containing only small amounts of genetically engineered ingredients, and any processed food that would be subject to the labeling requirement solely because one or more processing aids or enzymes were produced or derived with genetic engineering.
Now that the petitions have been filed, they must be reviewed to confirm that the sponsors of the initiative have obtained the necessary 241,153 valid signatures of Washington registered voters. Once the signatures are verified, the initiative will then be turned to the Washington State Legislature for further action:
- The Legislature can adopt the initiative as proposed, in which case it becomes law without a vote of the people;
- The Legislature can reject or refuse to act on the proposed initiative, in which case the initiative must be placed on the ballot at the next state general election; or
- The Legislature can approve an alternative to the proposed initiative, in which case both the original proposal and the Legislature's alternative must be placed on the ballot at the next state general election.
The Washington Legislature will convene on Monday, January 14, 2013 and will be in session until April 28, 2013. Stoel Rives attorneys will report on the status on I-522 as it moves through the Legislature.
In addition to Washington's I-522, a bill that would mandate the labeling of food and commercial feed containing "genetically modified material" has been pre-filed in the New Mexico State Senate. Senate Bill (SB) 18, sponsored by Sen. Peter Wirth (D-Santa Fe), seeks to amend the New Mexico Food Act to require a disclosure label on any product containing more than one percent of a genetically modified material.
Although California’s Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act, better known as Proposition 37, failed earlier this month when put to a vote, food companies still remain vulnerable to attacks over the use of genetically engineered ingredients in their products.
Specifically, it appears that marketing a food as “all natural” when it contains a genetically engineered (GE) ingredient continues to generate class action litigation. The latest lawsuit challenging the use of the word “natural” on a product label was filed by plaintiff Sonya Bolerjack on November 6, 2012 in U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado against Pepperidge Farm, Inc. The class action complaint alleges that the company “mistakenly or misleadingly represented that its Cheddar Goldfish crackers are ‘Natural,’ when in fact, they are not, because they contain Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in the form of soy and/or soy derivatives.” In particular, the plaintiff asserts that the product is not natural due to the presence of soybean oil.
The plaintiff claims that Pepperidge Farm violated Colorado’s Consumer Protection Act by engaging in deceptive trade practices; breached express warranties including that the product is natural even though it contains GMOs; and negligently misrepresented to the public through its packaging and labeling that the product is natural even though it contains GMOs.
In bringing this class action suit, the plaintiff is seeking certification on behalf of a class defined in the complaint as “all United States persons who have purchased Pepperidge Farm Cheddar Goldfish crackers containing Soybean Oil, for personal use, during the period extending from November 6, 2008, through and to the filing date of this Complaint.” Currently, a decision as to whether to grant or deny an order certifying that the action may be maintained as a class action is pending.
These class action lawsuits involving challenges to the use of “natural” or “all natural” language on a product label have been both costly and damaging to reputation. It also appears likely that they will continue. In order to avoid litigation, companies should review their products and labeling for synthetic preservatives or artificial ingredients included in or added to the food, so that product labeling is accurate.
Tomorrow, California voters will be asked to decide the fate of Proposition 37, a voter initiative that would require certain raw and processed foods that have or may have been “entirely or partially produced with genetic engineering” to be labeled as such, if sold in California. Proposition 37 contains a number of exemptions from the labeling requirement. Specifically, if passed, the following foods would be not be required to comply with the mandatory labeling provisions of the initiative:
- certified organic products;
- alcoholic beverages;
- medical foods;
- food sold for immediate consumption, such as in a restaurants;
- products unintentionally produced with genetically engineered material;
- food made from animals fed or injected with genetically engineered material but not genetically engineered themselves; and
- food processed with or containing only small amounts of genetically engineered ingredients.
Initially, Proposition 37 was supported by more than two-thirds of Californians who said they intended to vote on November 6, according to a poll from the California Business Roundtable and Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy. On October 30, however, their latest poll indicated that support had dropped to approximately 39% and opposition had increased to almost 51 percent.
In addition to being the center of heated debate here in the U.S. over the past several months, the initiative has also received international attention. A recent article in The Guardian noted that “California’s ballot initiatives often take on huge importance. Often they are seen as laboratories for new ideas, that are adopted later in the rest of the country.”
Stoel Rives attorneys will be watching the outcome of the polls in California and will report on the results later this week.
The Industry Acrylamide Coalition (Coalition) filed suit against the State of California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), the agency that manages and revised the Prop 65 list to include 4-metheylimidazole (4-MEI), as a carcinogen. 4-MEI is often found in cooked foods. The Coalition argues that the third party report on which the listing was based, from the National Toxicity Program (NTP), is insufficient to support a valid Prop 65 listing. The complaint, which was filed in Sacramento, alleges that OEHHA failed to consider the entire file of evidence before making its decision. The Coalition’s complaint also indicates that 4-MEI is created during normal cooking of food and ingredients and cannot easily be removed. The Coalition includes the American Beverage Association, the California League of Food Processors, and the Grocery Manufacturers Association of USA.
Acrylamide – In Your Coffee?
In a similar manner, the National Coffee Association is coordinating the joint defense of a number of coffee roasters and retailers with respect to a 60-day notice served on 40 roasters. The chemical at issue is acrylamide, which is formed when certain proteins are heated. Original scrutiny for this chemical concentrated on potato products such as french fries, but apparently the same chemical reaction occurs in coffee when it is roasted. In addition, other beverages that also contain caffeine, such as soft and energy drinks, have also received 60-day notices.
Dietary Supplements and Prop. 65
A dietary supplement company has been ordered to pay 2.65 million as part of a joint settlement with district attorneys in California. This is one of the larger suits filed and settled by a public enforcement entity, other than the California Attorney General. People v. Irwin Naturals, Inc., Orange County Superior Court, Case No. 30-2011-00445453.
Irwin Naturals was alleged to have made false and misleading representations with respect to the marketing and sales of its products. The products were advertised as having Hoodia Gordonii, an alleged appetite suppressant; however, lab results found that the chemical was not present and triggered a mislabeling suit. Additionally, the suit alleged that many of the products also exceeded the Prop. 65 level of proposed Maximum Allowable Dose Level (“MADL”) of .5 micrograms/dA1. Most of the indicated products were green tea products, sold without the Prop. 65 warning as required.
As part of the settlement, 1.95M in penalties were paid to help enforce state consumer protection laws, $100,000 in restitution, and $600,000 in set aside for investigation costs. Reportedly, prosecutors felt that this prosecution was necessary in part because the FDA does not regulate dietary supplements.
Peeled, Inc. (“Peeled”) www.peeledsnacks.com, a company specializing in healthy, natural snack foods including dried fruits and dry roasted nuts, recently filed a trademark infringement suit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York against Peeled Fruit LLC (“Peeled Fruit”) www.simplypeeled.com. Peeled Fruit sells frozen soft-serve fruit, with fresh fruit toppings. Peeled alleges that Peeled Fruit is attempting to cash in on the brand awareness and goodwill associated with Peeled’s marks.
Court's Decision on CR 12(b)(6) Motion In Zupnik: FFDCA Preemption Under Further Attack and Twombly Ignored
We previously cited the motion to dismiss in Zupnik, et al. v. Tropicana Products, Inc. as an example of good pleading practice in a putative consumer fraud class case. United States District Judge Dale S. Fischer apparently disagreed with our assessment, this week issuing an order denying the motion.
Tropicana’s lead argument was a failure of pleading. Tropicana attacked the complaint both on the basis of Rule 9(b), and under the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Twombly. The Twombly decision requires the federal court on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to determine whether operative factual allegations are “plausible” and more than simply “conclusory.”
Judge Fischer rejected summarily Rule 9(b) arguments. She completely disregarded Tropicana’s Twombly arguments, failing even to mention the Supreme Court’s decision.
Tropicana also moved to dismiss based on federal preemption. Most of Judge Fischer’s decision is devoted to the preemption argument. She ruled that since California’s Sherman Law is substantively identical to 21 U.S.C. § 343(a) of the FFDCA, the preemption argument fails.
Judge Fischer theorized that even though plaintiffs could not point to anything on Tropicana’s label that violated any FDA regulation, the FDA could bring an enforcement action “to target specific false or misleading labels.” If the FDA can bring that kind of action under 21 U.S.C. § 343(a), plaintiffs, according to Judge Fischer, should also be able to bring a private right of action under the identical California law. Query whether Judge Fischer’s reasoning negates any FFDCA preemption defense to a claim brought under California’s Sherman Act?
The Good: Tropicana recently brought a motion to dismiss the Zupnik putative consumer fraud class claims pending against it. Zupnik alleges that Tropicana misled consumers in the promotion of its “Pure 100% Juice Pomegranate Blueberry Flavored Blend of 5 Juices from Concentrate with other Natural Flavors” because its front label did not include pictures of fruits other than pomegranates and blueberries.
Tropicana’s motion, brought under both FRCP 9(b) and 12(b)(6), appears as a good example of how putative consumer class claims can be challenged at the outset of the case. Though we don’t yet know whether Tropicana will be successful, its pleading is a sharp attack on the plaintiff’s complaint and takes advantage of the heightened pleading requirements announced recently by the Supreme Court.
Tropicana moved on the basis that the complaint lacks particularity required under Rule 9(b) (the rule requires pleading of the “particularity of the fraud”). It also challenged whether the plaintiff had any injury in fact or alleged any reliance on particular advertising. Finally, Tropicana argued that Zupnik’s claims were expressly preempted by federal law.
Tropicana cites to Twombly to urge the court to disregard “plaintiffs legal conclusions . . . even when made, as here, in the guise of factual allegations.”
Tropicana also attacks Zupnik’s complaint on the basis that “she got what she paid for.” Tropicana points out that its product sold for far less than juice with a higher level of pomegranate or blueberry juices. Because she got what she paid for (presumably regardless of whether she understood it at the time of purchase), she lacks standing to bring a claim for consumer fraud.
The Bad: Coincidently, in another case involving a putative consumer fraud class claim over depictions of fruits on a label, Judge Gorton of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts in Wiley v. Gerber Products Company granted Gerber’s motion to transfer to the Southern District of California for consolidation with the Williams case pending in California. (The Williams case was previously discussed in this blog.)
The lesson from Wiley v Gerber: if your strategy is to avoid transfer of venue, think about this when pleading. For example, do not include allegations in the complaint about a nationwide class and the application of different states’ consumer protection laws.
Wiley argued against transfer, contending that the “Court’s familiarity with Massachusetts law, under which several claims are brought weights against transfer.” The problem is that “in her amended complaint, Wiley added several claims under New Jersey state law which only undermines her contention that this Court is especially competent to adjudicate the state laws at issue in this dispute.” Wiley also alleged a nationwide class. The court found that the plaintiff’s choice of forum mattered little when she alleged a nationwide class.
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.
Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) recently filed a putative class action in federal court in the Northern District of California claiming that Glacéau’s VitaminWater is mislabeled under California law. This suit comes on the heels of the recent Ninth Circuit decision that remanded the Gerber foods case. We previously discussed the Gerber case on this blog and how it presents “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.”
The VitaminWater case appears to raise similar issues. CSPI fails to point to anything directly in VitaminWater’s labeling or advertising that is actually incorrect. Instead, CSPI asserts that “the central message” of VitaminWater’s labeling “is that drinking VitaminWater is good for one’s health.” CSPI asserts this is misleading because “VitaminWater is loaded with sugar” and as a result “may actually harm consumers’ health.” CSPI also faults the product labeling because it fails to disclose that Glacéau, the company that manufactures VitaminWater, was purchased by a soft drink manufacturer.
The U.S. Supreme Court signaled last week that it may review a California Supreme Court decision finding that federal law does not preempt claims for violations of state consumer protection laws concerning “selling artificially colored farmed salmon without disclosing to . . . customers the use of color additive.” Following a petition for certiorari filed in April, the Supreme Court issued an order last week inviting the Solicitor General “to file a brief in this case expressing the views of the United States.”
The Bush administration generally favors federal preemption of state consumer protection laws. Most Supreme Court watchers believe that the Court will grant certiorari if the Solicitor General advocates doing so. This case, if considered by the Supremes, is sure be significant with wide ranging implications for consumer protection claims concerning food product labeling.
Yesterday, California became the first state in the Union to write into law menu labeling requirements. Like municipal ordinances recently enacted in New York City and Seattle, the California law requires certain “chain” restaurants to disclose nutritional information and calorie content information for certain items.
The law, to be phased in between 2009 and 2011, applies to restaurant chains with at least 20 locations that “offer for sale substantially the same menu items, or operates as a franchised outlet of a parent company . . . with the same name in the state that offer for sale substantially the same menu items.”
The new California law reads like a lawyer’s dream. Numerous exemptions are granted for certain grocery stores, “certified farmer’s markets” and others. Exemptions are also created to the exemptions. For example, “separately owned food facilities to which this section otherwise applies that are located in the grocery store” are not included in the “grocery store” exemption. To further add to the confusion, “grocery store” is defined to include convenience stores, though the law fails explain what that means. Does this mean that the law applies to a hamburger chain restaurant but not to the neighboring chain “convenience store” that sells the same hamburger but also a quart of milk? Does this make any sense? Won’t this statutue almost certainly generate significant litigation?
The labeling requirements apply to “standard menu items,” which are defined as “a food or beverage item offered for sale by a food facility through a menu, menu board, or display tag at least 180 days per calendar year . . . .” Yet a “standard menu item” does not include “a food item that is customized on a case-by-case basis in response to an unsolicited customer request.” What does "unsolicited customer request" mean? What about a sandwich shop that offers nearly infinite combinations of products? According to SUBWAY, “there are more than two million different sandwich combinations available" its menu.
Aside from being riddled with ambiguities, inconsistencies and impossible-to-interpret language, this blog has previously made the case that menu regulation should be the domain of uniform federal law and not inconsistent, piecemeal local ordinances. The California law is yet another argument in favor of federal preemption.
Section one of the California law cites national obesity statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and the federal Nutritional Labeling and Education Act of 1990. Nothing about this bill is specific to California. Because the law only applies to large restaurant chains, its impact is mostly on large national or regional companies. Ironically, the California legislature understood the problem of inconsistent regulation and chose to preempt all local and municipal regulation of restaurant menus. If menu regulation is an issue that needs regulation (and there are many good arguments why it does not), it should be taken up by Congress, the FDA and the USDA, not states or local municipalities.