We’ve written before about the growing trend of “ethical sourcing” or “ethical production” class actions, which challenge manufacturers’ claims (or nondisclosures) about the humane (or inhumane) way their ingredients or materials are grown, caught, or harvested. A recent decision out of the Southern District of New York in a case involving “free range” eggs typifies this litigation trend and the danger it poses to food and beverage manufacturers.
In Kibble Quibble, Tenth Circuit Reaffirms That False Advertising Plaintiffs Must Have A Bone to Pick With a Specific, Falsifiable Statement
In the recent case Renfro v. Champion Petfoods, the Tenth Circuit affirmed a district court’s dismissal of a putative class action alleging that Champion Petfoods had deceptively marketed its Orijen-brand dog food. The plaintiffs’ claim centered around an incident in 2018, when Champion Petfoods learned that some ingredients it had sourced for Orijen had been contaminated. According to the plaintiffs, this incident—as well as other aspects of Champion’s sourcing and manufacturing process—rendered false Champion’s marketing claims that the products’ ingredients were generally high-quality. In rejecting this contention, the Tenth Circuit reaffirmed a core principle of false advertising law: that false advertising claims must be based on alleged false assertions of fact, not vague or unprovable marketing statements. The Tenth Circuit also reaffirmed the important principle that only plaintiffs who have been directly and personally harmed by a purportedly misleading practice have Article III standing to bring suit regarding that practice.
Courts are experiencing a recent surge of consumer class action filings alleging that manufacturers are misrepresenting the manner of procurement of materials for their products. These allegations center around claims of “ethical sourcing.” Broadly speaking, the goal of ethical sourcing is to ensure that a company only buys products and materials that are produced under reasonable working conditions and with fair pay for workers, as well as with minimal impact on the environment. Ethical sourcing is intended to reinforce social and environmental responsibility by companies.
This blog previously reported on the Seventh Circuit oral argument in Bell v. Albertson Companies Inc.—a case turning on whether a reasonable consumer would understand the phrase “100% Grated Parmesan cheese” on a cheese canister to mean that the product contained literally nothing but cheese. The Defendants had argued that reasonable consumers could not be deceived by such a claim, even though their products contained a small amount of cellulose powder and potassium sorbate mixed in with the grated Parmesan to act as a preservative. This was so, they maintained, since (1) the ingredient list expressly disclosed that non-cheese ingredients were present in the canisters, and (2) the canisters’ position on unrefrigerated store shelves should have signaled that a preservative was present. The district court dismissed these “100% claims” for failure to state a claim, and Plaintiffs appealed.
On September 17, the Seventh Circuit heard argument in Ann Bell v. Albertson Companies Inc. The case hinges on whether a reasonable consumer would understand the phrase “100% Grated Parmesan cheese” on a Parmesan cheese canister to mean that the canister contains literally nothing but cheese. The plaintiffs argued that they believed just that, when in fact the cheese product in question contained cellulose, which the defendants claimed was used as an anti-caking agent and the plaintiffs claimed was used as “filler".
The past few months have witnessed a veritable sugar rush of decisions dismissing consumer class action complaints alleging that baking chips and candies labeled as “white” falsely imply the presence of actual white chocolate. See, e.g., Prescott v. Nestle USA, Inc., 2020 WL 3035798 (N.D. Cal. June 4, 2020); Rivas v. Hershey Co., No. 19-CV-3379(KAM)(SJB), 2020WL 4287272 (E.D.N.Y. July 27, 2020); Cheslow v. Ghirardelli Chocolate Co., 2020 WL 4039365 (N.D. Cal. July 17, 2020). Each of these decisions is noteworthy for holding, at the pleadings stage, that a consumer’s purported interpretation of a labelling claim is unreasonable as a matter of law. But Cheslow is particularly instructive, as it recognizes that even consumer survey evidence cannot convert an implausible interpretation of a labeling claim into a reasonable one.
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.
Latest Scoop on the “Happy Cows” Lawsuit: Court Dismisses False Advertising Claims Against Ben & Jerry’s
Patrons of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream should be familiar with Woody, the bovine mascot touted by the company as “the most interesting cow in the world.” Ben & Jerry’s packaging has long featured cartoon illustrations of Woody grazing beneath blue skies in bucolic green pastures. This past year, however, Woody ambled into the sights of the plaintiffs’ class action bar. Thankfully, she (and Ben & Jerry’s) emerged unscathed: the district court (D. Vt.) dismissed the case at the pleadings stage, affirming both the authority of district courts to dismiss implausible consumer protection claims and the requirement that plaintiffs seeking injunctive relief demonstrate a probability of future injury.
Seventh Circuit Rejects Court Intervention In Light Beer Ad Wars: Is A New Trend Brewing In False Advertising Law?
The last few years have seen a pitched battle for market share among the manufacturers of America’s leading “light” beers—a battle that’s been waged not only in America’s bars and on the airwaves, but in the courtroom. Earlier this month, in Molson Coors v. Anheuser-Busch, Nos. 19-2200, 19-2713, 19-2782, 19-3097 & 19-3116, 2020 WL 2097557 (7th Cir. May 1, 2020), the Seventh Circuit gave Anheuser-Busch, the maker of Bud Light, a major victory in that battle, wiping out an injunction that the district court had entered in favor of Molson Coors, the maker of Miller Lite and Coors Light. That’s newsworthy in itself—but, because of its novel reasoning, the Molson Coors ruling may have broader significance for false-advertising law.
“Whether reasonable consumers would be deceived by a challenged advertisement is a question of fact that can’t be decided on a motion to dismiss.” This claim is one of the biggest sacred cows in false advertising litigation. But as the Second Circuit has made clear twice in the past year, it’s just a load of bull. Take, for example, Chen v. Dunkin’ Brands, Inc., --- F.3d ----, 2020 WL 1522826, which the Second Circuit decided unanimously earlier this week. In Chen, the court doubled down on its June 2019 holding that a court can decide at the pleadings stage “whether a reasonable consumer would have been misled by a particular advertisement,” Geffner v. Coca-Cola Co., 928 F.3d 198, 200 (2d Cir. 2019), affirming the dismissal of a false advertising claim involving the meaning of “steak.” In the process, the court also served up a tasty side dish of personal jurisdiction doctrine.
Grains of paradise (aframomum melegueta), are a peppery, citrusy spice indigenous to West Africa, related to ginger and cardamom. The name purportedly derives from medieval merchants’ claims that the plant grew only in the Garden of Eden. Common to West African cuisine, grains of paradise are also one of the botanicals sometimes used to give gin its characteristic flavor.
In Florida, however, an obscure 1868 law makes it a third-degree felony to “adulterate … any liquor” with certain specified substances, ranging from grains of paradise and capsicum (chili pepper) to potentially deadly opium and “sugar of lead.” Fla. Stat. § 562.455. Some have postulated that this law’s original intent was to prevent consumer deception, as the banned ingredients were once added to liquor to make it taste stronger (more alcoholic) than it actually was. That same practice spurred an 1816 law of Parliament (56 Geo. III, ch. 58) making it illegal for brewers and dealers in beer to possess grains of paradise. Unlike merrie olde England, however, the Sunshine State never got around to repealing its law.
Tough Nut to Crack: First Circuit Panel Splits on Reasonable Interpretation of Flavored Coffee Packaging
We have written previously about application of the “reasonable consumer” standard when labeling statements are claimed to be false or misleading, despite the presence of clarifying information elsewhere on the product label. We’ve observed the inconsistent standards courts apply in ruling on a motion to dismiss, particularly as to whether a “reasonable consumer” views the alleged misstatement in the context of the entire product packaging and ingredient list.
Last month, Misbranded co-editors Josh Kipnees, Jonah Knobler, and Jane Metcalf presented a live-streamed webinar via Bloomberg Law titled “Hot Topics in Consumer False Advertising Litigation.” The free hour-long webinar, now available on demand, covers the following subjects, some of which should be familiar to regular readers of this blog:
- “Natural” / “no artificial ingredients” claims
- “No preservatives” claims
- Ingredient claims (“made with [X]”)
- Geographic origin claims (e.g., “Made in the USA”)
- Slack-fill claims
- Claims involving nondisclosure of morally troubling/offensive facts
- What’s next in consumer false advertising litigation?
We encourage you to check it out (and obtain some CLE credit in the process).
Another One Bytes the Dust: Court Dismisses Flash Drive False Advertising Suit Based On Back-Of-Package Clarifying Disclosures
A few months ago, we wrote about courts’ inconsistent application of the “reasonable consumer” standard when labeling statements are claimed to be false or misleading, despite clarifying information elsewhere on the product label. In Williams v. Gerber Products Co., 552 F.3d 934 (9th Cir. 2008), the Ninth Circuit (in)famously held that a “reasonable consumer” should not be “expected to look beyond misleading representations on the front of the box to discover the truth … on the side of the box.” Id. at 939-40. As we explained in our prior post, Williams is in tension with longstanding authority that “reasonable consumers” are expected to read the entire advertisement, including disclaimers and clarifying language. We observed that numerous lower-court decisions, recognizing Williams’ shaky foundation, have sought to distinguish it and narrow it to its facts.
Add to this list Dinan v. SanDisk LLC, No. 5:18-cv-5420 (BLF), 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 91633 (N.D. Cal. May 31, 2019), a recent decision out of the Northern District of California. While Dinan was not a food, drug, or cosmetic case, its discussion of Williams and the “reasonable consumer” test bears directly on such cases, and should help manufacturers dispatch some false advertising claims at the pleadings stage when their packages include proper clarifying disclosures.
“Contains detectable levels of the weed-killer chemical glyphosate.”
“Contains limonene, which causes kidney toxicity and tumors, and linalool, a cockroach insecticide.”
“Contains a potent biocide and endocrine disruptor, with detrimental health effects that are still becoming known.”
These are the sorts of headline-grabbing allegations the plaintiffs’ bar has recently relied upon in claiming that products advertised or positioned as “natural” are deceptively marketed. At first blush, the presence of allegedly dangerous ingredients in foods, cosmetics, and other consumer products might seem like the basis of a strong false advertising case—especially when those substances are undisclosed. How could a company so deceive the public by promising a “good-for-you” product that contains such “bad” ingredients?
As astronomer Carl Sagan famously said, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Plaintiffs have not gotten the message. They often allege that a defendant’s marketing or labeling statements are false and misleading on the sole basis that there is purportedly no evidence (or insufficient evidence) proving their truth. These so-called “lack of substantiation” claims are easy to plead because a plaintiff does not need to conduct an investigation to identify evidence that the challenged statement is false. Rather, she alleges only an absence of supporting evidence for the statement—and generally, in a conclusory manner.
Last Friday, the Third Circuit held that a J. Crew customer lacked standing to sue the company for printing ten digits of his credit card on a receipt, in violation of the Fair and Accurate Credit Transaction Act (which provides that companies should print only the last four digits). Relying on the Supreme Court’s decision in Spokeo v. Robins, the court held that the plaintiff’s alleged injuries—a violation of the statute and the “risk of identity theft”—were merely “procedural,” and thus insufficiently “concrete” to confer standing under Article III. The Third Circuit’s rigorous application of Article III standing requirements is good news for defendants in mislabeling cases, some of which are “gotcha”-type suits arising from highly technical labeling violations.
Many recent consumer class actions against food and beverage manufacturers have related to label claims that a particular category of ingredient is not used in the product—e.g., “No Preservatives,” “No Artificial Flavors.” These lawsuits follow a predictable formula: the plaintiff, relying on the product’s ingredient list, alleges that a particular ingredient in the product functions as an artificial flavor and/or chemical preservative, and that the “no preservatives” or “no artificial flavors” claim is therefore false.
In consumer cases alleging product mislabeling, one frequently litigated question is whether the plaintiff has standing to seek an injunction of the labeling practice that he or she claims is misleading. Over the past decade, consumer protection defendants have often won on this issue by demonstrating that the plaintiff is at no risk of future injury. But last year, in Davidson v. Kimberly-Clark Corp., 889 F.3d 956 (9th Cir. 2018), the Ninth Circuit made this issue tougher for defendants, adopting an exceptionally broad view of plaintiffs’ standing to seek injunctive relief in mislabeling cases. Below, we discuss the aberrant holding in Davidson, and how Ninth Circuit defendants may still be able to distinguish its facts to defeat a claim for injunctive relief.
By law, packaged foods and beverages must bear an accurate list of their ingredients “in descending order of predominance by weight.” 21 C.F.R. § 101.4. Consumers routinely sue food and beverage companies alleging that they were misled about the presence or absence of particular ingredients—even though a mere glance at the ingredient list would have averted any confusion. Do such plaintiffs have a plausible claim for relief under false advertising laws, or should these claims be dismissed at the threshold?