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?