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.
Recently, I attended the annual American Agricultural Law Association (AALA) Conference in Nashville, TN. A topic on many of the attendees’ minds was California’s Proposition 37 or “The California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act.” A previous discussion of Proposition 37 can be found here.
If passed in November, the voter initiative 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. In addition, Subsection 110809.1 provides that if a food is “genetically engineered” or “processed” as those terms are defined under the initiative, the food’s label may not, in California, state or imply that the food is “natural,” “naturally made,” “naturally grown,” “all natural,” or use any words of similar import that might mislead any consumer.
As election day nears, the debate over Proposition 37 has reached fever pitch. Proponents of the initiative urge that consumers are entitled to make informed choices about the foods they purchase. On the other hand, opponents argue that the initiative would be burdensome on both producers and retailers and would result in excessive litigation.
While attending the AALA Conference, I had the pleasure of chatting with Drew Kershen, the Earl Sneed Centennial Professor of Law (Emeritus) at the University of Oklahoma College of Law. Professor Kershen recently published an article on a unique and important issue involving California’s Proposition 37. The article addresses whether Proposition 37 complies with World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreements and discusses the compatibility between the two.
In analyzing the relationship between Proposition 37 and WTO Agreements, more specifically the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (the SPS Agreement) and the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (the TBT Agreement), Professor Kershen concludes that the initiative “raises significant and difficult questions about whether it complies with the SPS Agreement or the TBT Agreement.” As a result, he notes that Proposition 37 can be challenged by member states to the WTO Agreements as well as the United States as a violation of WTO Agreements. However, it remains unclear as to whether those parties will act against Proposition 37.
Professor Kershen’s essay is a reduced version of a previously published article: “Would State-Mandate Labels for Biotech Foods Violate World Trade Agreements?,” Critical Legal Issues WORKING PAPER No. 181 (Wash. Lgl. Fndt., Sept. 2012), available at www.wlf.org/.
Stoel Rives attorneys continue to track the progress of Proposition 37 in California. Stay tuned for more updates as election day approaches.
A recent decision held that Front of Package (”FOP”) labeling claims may not (yet) be subject to federal preemption. The decision in a putative class action, Chacanaca v. The Quaker Oats Company, involves what has become a common fact pattern: The FDA says an issue is complex and subject to industry guidance and possibly rule-making (for example, use of the terms “natural,” “wholesome,” and “smart choices”), while a court says the issue may not be complex and may be perfectly within the expertise of the judiciary and jury system.
Federal District Court Judge Richard Seeborg of the Northern District of California dismissed plaintiffs’ state law claims targeting the “0 grams trans fat,” “good source,” “made with whole grain oats,” and “no high fructose corn syrup” declarations on preemption grounds. Yet, insofar as Quaker Oats "seeks a favorable judgment at this juncture on all state claims that focus on the term 'wholesome'; on images of children, nuts, or oats; or the 'smart choices made easy' language or decal," the court denied the motion to dismiss.
The plaintiffs’ challenges to Quaker Oats’ use of the term ”wholesome” and images of the children seem targeted exactly at the claims that were preempted: the trans-fat issue. The court concedes that the FDA has recently indicated its intent to explore rule-making in the area of FOP labeling claims and that the FDA already “has extensively regulated food labeling in the context of a labyrinthine regulatory scheme.” “Nonetheless,” according to the court, ”plaintiffs advance a relatively straightforward claim: they assert that defendant has violated FDA regulations and marketed a product that could mislead a reasonable consumer. As courts faced with state-law challenges in the food labeling arena have reasoned, this is a question ’courts are well-equipped to handle.’”
Are the plaintiffs’ claims really that straightforward? How is a court "well-equipped" to determine the meaning of ”wholesome,” ”natural,” or other FOP claims? Is a court able to fully consider comments and information from all corners of the food manufacturing world? Isn’t this really in the wheelhouse of the regulators (or possibly the legislators)? Can the food business in the United States function effectively with individual courts and states determining their own common law (or even statutory) rules for product labeling?
Learn About Who Is Setting Sustainability Standards and How to Make Good Sustainability Claims: Register for the 11/3 Sustainable Foods Webinar
If you haven’t already, register here for the second in a three-part webinar series on environmentally friendly sustainable food products, to be held at 9 am PT, Tuesday, November 3. This installment of the series will focus on sustainability standards, third-party certification and avoidance of “green-washing.”
The webinar will feature:
- FDA regulatory lawyer Ricardo Carvajal from Hyman, Phelps & McNamara;
- Roberta Anderson from Food Alliance, the nation’s leader in setting third-party sustainability standards for food production;
- Alison Dennis from Burgerville, a traditional quick-service restaurant on the cutting edge of sustainability; and
- Advertising lawyer Jere Webb from Stoel Rives.
The webinar is interactive, and those listening live will be able to submit questions. We will strive to answer all questions either during the broadcast or off-line directly with listeners.
If you missed the first installment, you can read about the take-aways and replay the webinar on demand here. The slide deck can be downloaded here.
The Third Circuit ruled this week in Holk v. Snapple Beverage Corp., reversing the district court and reinstating the state law putative class claims for consumer fraud and breach of warranty for use of the term “all natural” despite the inclusion of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) (though the court noted that the manufacturer no longer uses HFCS in its products).
The case is significant and is getting attention because the Third Circuit concluded that “FDA’s policy statement regarding the term ‘natural’ is not entitled to preemptive effect.” The court was persuaded because “the FDA declined to adopt a formal definition of the term ‘natural’ choosing instead to simply enforce its long standing ‘informal policy’”:
[T]he agency has considered “natural” to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including colors regardless of source) is included in, or has been added to, the product that would not normally be expected to be there. For example, the addition of beet juice to lemonade to make it pink would preclude the product being called “natural.”
As expected, the court followed its previous ruling in Fellner v. Tri-Union Seafood, LLC (our blog entry about it is here), ruling that neither the FDA’s “informal policy” nor their enforcement letters were entitled to any preemptive weight.
Practice Tip: For the next HFCS case, preemption may not be a dead issue. The Third Circuit did not rule (though it expressed its skepticism) on the “express preemption” argument based on 21 U.S.C. § 343-1(a)(3). The court ducked the issue by concluding that Snapple waived the argument by not “advancing it” in the district court.