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.
Preemption is a familiar battlefield for litigants challenging or defending advertising claims made on the labels of federally regulated products. Plaintiffs bringing claims under state law must contend with the fact that federal laws often contain preemption clauses that prohibit states from imposing requirements different from or in addition to those found in federal law. We have previously covered cases dealing with preemption in the context of the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) here and here.
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.
Federal law expressly authorizes manufacturers of dietary supplements to make “structure/function” claims—that is, claims about the effect of particular nutrients on the structure or function of the human body. (Think: “vitamin C supports the immune system” or “calcium supports healthy bones”). Despite this federal authorization, consumers often attempt to bring state-law challenges to manufacturers’ structure/function claims, asserting that they are false or misleading. This type of clash between federal and state law is a classic recipe for preemption. And that is especially true where the relevant federal statute—here, the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA)—contains an express preemption clause. See 21 U.S.C. § 343-1(a).
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".
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.
What distinguishes a “cosmetic” from a “drug” under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA)? The FDA has struggled to offer clear guidance on the distinction, but the classification as one or the other (or both) carries significant legal and regulatory consequences for manufacturers: a product that is a “drug” needs pre-market approval from the FDA, while a “cosmetic” does not. A cosmetic product that has not received this approval may not represent that, like a drug, it is “intended to affect the structure or any function of the body of man.” 21 U.S.C. § 321(g)(1). Thus, a product that claims to be capable of changing how part of the body works (e.g., “reduces cellulite” or “regenerates cells”), but has not been subjected to this pre-approval process, is considered mislabeled under the FDCA.
Liability Immunity Under The PREP Act: A Potent New Defense Against COVID-Related False Advertising Claims
Our national response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been made more difficult by a shortage of personal protective equipment and lifesaving drugs and medical devices. Some evidence suggests that manufacturers’ fear of lawsuits has exacerbated these shortages. Seeking to allay these concerns, in March 2020, the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a Declaration providing manufacturers, distributors, health professionals, and other “qualified persons” immunity against certain claims relating to COVID-19 “countermeasures.” See 85 Fed. Reg. 15198 (Mar. 17, 2020). In mid-April, HHS followed up with an Advisory Opinion clarifying the scope of liability immunity under the Declaration.
Much has been written about the Declaration’s potential as a shield against product liability suits. But does the Declaration also provide immunity from false advertising suits, including Lanham Act, common-law, and statutory consumer protection claims? There’s not yet any judicial precedent on this question, but the answer appears to be “yes”—at least in many cases.
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.
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.
It was only a matter of time. As we anticipated last summer, the plaintiffs’ bar recently filed a slew of false advertising suits against manufacturers of products infused or made with cannabidiol, a/k/a CBD. This development was a fait accompli, given the combination of a booming CBD market, a murky federal regulatory landscape, and a patchwork of state regulatory efforts at varying degrees of development. This confluence of factors has paved the way for at least ten consumer lawsuits in the last six months against producers of CBD products. We expect more suits to follow in the near future as copycat suits are filed, CBD products become increasingly mainstream, and more deep-pocketed players enter the CBD market.
FDCA Preclusion: When Can a Manufacturer Defeat a Competitor’s Lawsuit by Complying with FDA Regulations?
As many readers probably know, when a food or beverage manufacturer gets a consumer class action alleging that its labeling violated state law, one of the first things it should do is consider whether the disputed aspect of the labeling is covered by the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (“FDCA”). Many provisions of that statute—and, by extension, their implementing regulations—expressly preempt non-identical state-law regulations. If a putative class of consumers is asking a manufacturer to do something different with its labeling than those provisions do, there is a strong argument that the case is preempted: federal law (the FDCA) trumps state law (the relevant consumer protection statute).
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).
Unless you were born yesterday, you know that packaged goods usually contain some empty space in the box, bottle, or bag. This has been true for as long as there have been packaged goods. What is relatively new is that consumers—or, rather, a small cadre of specialized plaintiff’s lawyers—are suing over it. But as Newton said, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. And the more that lawyers have inundated courts with these suits, the more aggressively courts have responded to shut the silliness down. This post examines the regulatory underpinnings of these so-called “slack-fill” suits and the many bases that courts have found for letting the air out of them.