By Guest Blogger Amena Jefferson (Stoel Rives Summer Associate and UW law student)

Federal preemption is on the table once again. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently decided Fellner v. Tri-Union Seafoods, No. 07-1238, 2008 WL 3842925 (3d Cir. Aug. 19, 2008). In this case, the plaintiff allegedly fell ill from mercury poisoning after consuming canned tuna “almost exclusively” for five years (1999-2004). The plaintiff sought recovery under the New Jersey Product Liability Act for Tri-Union’s failure to warn of the risks posed by methylmercury in its canned tuna.

The FDA previously issued a consumer advisory and a backgrounder about the risk of mercury in tuna. In 2004, while a similar lawsuit was pending in California (People v. Tri-Union Seafoods), the FDA sent a letter to the attorney general of California noting that state warning claims are preempted because the “existence of the lawsuit would ‘frustrate the FDA’s carefully considered federal approach’” to methylmercury content in tuna. A California court determined, based on the FDA’s action, that claims under California Proposition 65 were preempted by federal law.

The Third Circuit disagreed. It reversed the district court’s ruling that the state claims are preempted, and instead concluded that no preemption exists because FDA advisories on tuna and methylmercury are not “law.” The appellate court concluded that the FDA letter merits “a particularly low level of deference” because it is not “the product of an agency proceeding.” Yet, the the Third Circuit never indicated how a warning could have been issued without running afoul of the FDA and federal law, other than to say that a warning “could have specified that the risks become material only with frequent tuna consumption, and that moderate fish consumption offers positive health benefits.”

So how does this make sense? On the one hand, the FDA specifically said it intended to preempt state law; on the other, the court said it didn’t. The decision opens the door for even more confusing and conflicting local and state labeling requirements. Can this kind of confusion and conflict promote customer safety? Why is the Third Circuit going out of its way to disagree with the FDA and side with a person choosing a canned-tuna-only diet? Are state tort laws really meant to protect someone who makes this kind of extreme dietary choice?