Federal food-labeling laws preempt state laws that impose requirements different from or in addition to those established by federal law. In some cases, the FDA has spoken directly to a labeling issue by regulation, and if the food manufacturer is in compliance with that regulation, any state-law liability should be preempted. Careful plaintiffs often try to draft their allegations to get around a federal regulation that would otherwise preempt their claims. For instance, in challenging a defendant’s representations concerning honey in a cereal, a plaintiff avoided the defendant’s compliance with the federal labeling regulation on “flavoring” by alleging she was deceived about the relative amount of honey as a sweetener (which is not covered by a specific FDA regulation), rather than the relative amount of honey as a flavoring agent (which is covered). When courts allow creative pleading to circumvent a preemption defense, defendants are deprived of the protections that Congress intended to provide them under federal labeling law, at least at the outset of the case. But as a recent decision shows, defendants may be able to renew and succeed on a preemption defense after discovery shows plaintiff’s artful allegations were just that.
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Misbranded is Patterson Belknap’s blog covering false advertising litigation—both consumer class actions and competitor suits—with a particular focus on FDA-regulated products (foods/beverages, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and dietary supplements). Writing from the industry perspective, we provide timely updates on important cases, surveys of litigation trends, and in-depth analyses of “hot” legal issues. Our firm pioneered the modern practice of false advertising law more than 40 years ago, bringing the first competitor suits under the Lanham Act. In the decades since, we have continued to practice at the cutting edge, handling many of the field’s most groundbreaking cases on behalf of the nation’s best-known businesses. Today, led by Steven A. Zalesin, our team advocates creatively, strategically, and efficiently on behalf of our clients at all phases of litigation, from pre-complaint demands to Supreme Court appeals.
Increasingly, consumers base their purchase decisions on facts about a company or its product that have nothing to do with the performance or quality of the product itself. For example, does the manufacturer treat its workforce fairly? Is it a responsible steward of the environment? What are its stances on social issues like abortion or LGBTQ rights? To which parties or candidates does it (or its officers) donate? All of these facts—and countless others—are “material” to many consumers in the sense that they affect (or even dictate) purchase decisions. Indeed, in recent years, ethical, moral, and political concerns like these have led to countless instances of boycotts and other forms of consumer speech—a welcome sign of a healthy body politic and liberal democracy.
The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) promotes nationwide uniformity in food labeling by establishing a comprehensive federal labeling scheme and preempting state law that imposes different requirements. 21 U.S.C. § 343-1(a). Over the years, the FDA has issued regulations directed to specific labeling issues, including representations of a food product’s “primary recognizable flavor.” 21 C.F.R. §§ 101.22(a)(3), 170.3(o)(12). So long as a label’s representation of a “primary recognizable flavor” complies with the FDA’s flavoring regulation, the label is not misleading, and any state law that supposedly says otherwise is preempted.
Prevagen Maker Avoids Sting of Defeat as Judge Declares Mistrial in Consumer False Advertising Class Action
On January 14, faced with a deadlocked jury, a federal judge in California declared a mistrial in a consumer class action involving the marketing of Prevagen, a popular dietary supplement based on jellyfish-derived proteins that claims to improve brain functioning and memory. This outcome runs counter to the conventional, but mostly untested, viewpoint that juries tend to favor the plaintiffs in consumer class actions. The Prevagen trial also underscores that scientific uncertainty about the truth of an advertising claim may present challenges for the defense in the earlier stages of a class action, but become an advantage for a defendant who chooses to fight all the way to trial.
A frequent target of consumer class actions are “structure/function” claims made in connection with dietary supplements. These claims describe a nutrient or dietary ingredient and its role in the body’s structure or function: for example, “glucosamine promotes healthy joints.” Plaintiffs may allege that a product’s labeling is misleading because the typical consumer already receives enough of the nutrient or ingredient from her diet. At the same time, those plaintiffs will seek a refund on behalf of everyone who bought the product—even if many in the class have received a benefit. A recent decision out of the Southern District of California, Alvarez v. NBTY, Inc., 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 87420 (May 22, 2019), suggests that this disconnect between the proposed class and the plaintiffs’ theory of liability and damages may no longer be tolerated at the class-certification stage.
Court Certifies Class Action Over Gerber “Good Start Gentle” Baby Formula, Citing Consumers’ General Exposure to Ad Campaign
A recent decision from the Eastern District of New York, Hoth v. Gerber Prods. Co., 15-cv-2995 (E.D.N.Y.), granted class certification to purchasers of Gerber baby formula in Florida and New York who claimed to have been misled by representations that the formula reduced infants’ risk of developing allergies. The certified class is unusual, however, in that not all of its members actually purchased the product labeled with the alleged misrepresentation. Many courts have concluded that this lack of uniform exposure defeats certification by precluding a showing of classwide injury, but the Hoth court credited evidence that the general “advertising and labeling practice [regarding allergy prevention] allowed a price premium to be charged across the entire line of [challenged] products.” Op. at 41 (emphasis in original).
In Comcast v. Behrend, 569 U.S. 27 (2013), the Supreme Court held that a plaintiff cannot obtain class certification with an inadequate damages model. In the years since, courts have diverged over how much a plaintiff must do to satisfy this requirement. Often, plaintiffs seek class certification with nothing more than a skeletal proposal to develop and perform an analysis at some future point, using information they do not—and might never—possess. While some courts have found such adumbrative “models” sufficient at the class certification stage, the better decisions require more. As Comcast recognizes, Rule 23 “does not set forth a mere pleading standard.” Rather, a plaintiff “must affirmatively demonstrate” through “evidentiary proof” that damages are measurable on a class-wide basis through a common methodology. Faithful application of that principle obligates plaintiffs and their experts to offer a detailed methodology that is tailored to the facts of the case, and to show that any data that the model requires in fact exists and can be obtained.