Fowl Ground: Ninth Circuit Reaches Unusual Result Applying Federal Preemption Law in Poultry Labeling Case
A few months ago, we analyzed the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Webb v. Trader Joe’s Company, No. 19-56389 (June 4, 2021), which held that a private plaintiff’s challenge to poultry labeling claims were preempted by federal law, warranting dismissal at the pleadings stage. However, the Ninth Circuit’s recent decision in Cohen v. ConAgra Brands, Inc., No. 20-55969 (Oct. 26, 2021), declined to apply preemption in a similar challenge to labeling claims on poultry products. In this post, we examine the two decisions and conclude that, notwithstanding Cohen, Webb remains the benchmark for future litigation in this area.
Earlier this month, this blog analyzed the preemption provisions of the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) and the Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA), which together regulate the labeling of meat and poultry products. We explained that trial courts in California and elsewhere routinely dismiss false advertising claims challenging statements on meat and poultry labels based on the statutes’ preemption provisions, which prohibit states from imposing requirements different from or in addition to federal law. Courts have specifically focused on the FMIA and PPIA’s pre-approval requirements in concluding that such challenges are preempted.
In a recent decision, Ezaki Glico v. Lotte International American Corporation, the Third Circuit rejected a manufacturer’s claims of trade dress infringement regarding Pocky, a chocolate covered cookie stick which Ezaki Glico invented in the 1970s. The court concluded that Pocky’s overall shape and look—cookie sticks partially coated in chocolate—were functional and thus not protected from competitor imitation.
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.
Our parents and teachers taught us that “two wrongs don’t make a right.” But in the world of Lanham Act litigation, the opposite is often true. When defending a Lanham Act claim brought by a competitor, the doctrine of unclean hands—the lawyerly version of “But they did it too!”—can be a case-dispositive argument. Last month, the Ninth Circuit made it a bit easier to establish this defense, holding that a defendant arguing unclean hands need not prove that the plaintiff’s unclean conduct caused “actual harm.” See Certified Nutraceuticals, Inc. v. Avicenna Nutraceutical, LLC, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 22351 (9th Cir. July 27, 2020).