Snapple Decision - FDA's Policy Concerning Use of "Natural" Not Entitled to Preemptive Effect

High Fructose Corn Syrup Labeling: Opening the Floodgates For Consumer HFCS Claims?

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.

HFCS Labeling Case: Opening The Floodgates For New Consumer Claims?

The Third Circuit may be close to opening the floodgates of claims against food and beverage manufacturers who use high-fructose corn syrup (“HFCS”) in products labeled “all natural.” Shannon Duffy at the Legal Intelligencer reported recently on a “lively hour-long” oral argument in the Third Circuit about reversing a District Court’s dismissal of state consumer claims against Snapple for use of HFSC.

The District Court dismissed the consumer claims in 2007 on the basis of field preemption. The dismissal predated the Third Circuit’s decision in Fellner v. Tri-Union Seafood, LLC. See our previous blog on the Fellner case. Despite the FDA’s position in Fellner that a state law failure-to-warn claim is preempted by federal law, the Third Circuit ruled to the contrary.

In Fellner, a claim by a person who suffered from mercury poisoning after eating canned tuna literally for breakfast, lunch and dinner for five years may have been an outlier. But reversal of the District Court’s decision in the Snapple case will open the floodgates to consumer class action claims against a whole slew of food sellers and manufacturers.