Class Action Claims Against Labeling of Snack Food Preempted

Last week, a federal district court held that federal food labeling law does preempt state law claims attacking the use of phrases such as “0 Grams of Trans Fat” on snack food packaging. See Peviani v. Hostess Brands Inc., No. 2:10-cv-02303 (C.D. Cal., 11/3/10).

 In this putative class action, plaintiffs alleged that the defendant used misleading and deceptive statements to market the "Hostess 100 Calorie Packs" baked goods. In particular, plaintiffs alleged that the label noting "0 Grams of Trans Fat" was inconsistent with the products containing partially hydrogenated oils (PVHO).  Plaintiffs alleged that PVHO is linked to various health problems, and therefore is supposedly a "dangerous trans fat."

Plaintiffs alleged they purchased the 100 Calorie Pack foods relying on the no trans fat claim.  They asserted false advertising under the Lanham Act, violations of the California Unfair Competition Law, the California False Advertising Law, and the Consumer Legal Remedies Act. The two classes proposed were a restitution and damages nationwide class of those that purchased the foods, and an injunctive relief class of those who commonly purchase such foods.

Defendants filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the claims were preempted by federal law.  The  court noted that the FDCA sets forth a comprehensive federal scheme for the regulation of food. In 1990, Congress passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, 21 U.S.C. 341, which clarified FDA's authority to require and regulate nutrition labeling on food.  Two provisions directly apply to use of phrases like "0 Grams of Trans Fat."  One provision requires the labeling in the Nutrition Facts Panel to include the amount of saturated fat and total fat in each serving; and this regulation requires that if a serving contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat, the amount "shall be expressed as zero."  Second, a regulation permits certain nutrient claims outside the Facts Panel about the level or range of a nutrient in the food, such as sodium, or calories or fat.  The NLEA permits such a statement as long as it is not false or misleading. 21 U.S.C. §§ 343(q) and (r).

The court noted that laws regulating the proper marketing of food are within the states' historic police powers, and thus subject to a presumption against preemption.  Nevertheless, consumer protection laws, such as those invoked here, are nonetheless preempted if they seek to impose requirements (through their use in litigation) that contravene the provisions of the federal law.  The NLEA contains an express preemption clause relating to any requirement  in state law that is not identical to the federal provisions.  But the court noted that implied preemption can accompany express preemption, as the essential inquiry always remains the substance and scope of Congress' intent to displace state law.

Plaintiffs alleged that the trans fat label outside of the Nutrition Facts Panel was an express nutrient content claim, and was false and misleading.  But the court noted that the FDA has declined to promulgate any regulation as to whether actual values must be used in labeling or rounded values may be used. In fact, the FDA has said that the difference between actual and rounded values are nutritionally insignificant, and thus either value relays the same basic information.  Here, since the phrase "0 grams of Trans Fat" is not false or misleading when used in the Nutrition Facts Panel, defendant's use of the exact same phrase elsewhere on the product label cannot be found false or misleading. If 0 and less than 0.5 grams mean, nutritionally, the same thing in the important Panel section, use of the exact same claim could not be misleading elsewhere on the label.

In essence, plaintiffs were trying, under state law, to enjoin on the label the use of the very phrase that federal law permits on another part of the label.  Plaintiffs' claims failed because they would impose a state law obligation for trans-fat disclosure that is not required by federal law.  (The plaintiffs' federal claim, for false advertising under the Lanham Act, failed for lack of standing,.)

The decision echoed Chacanaca v. Quaker Oats Co.,  No. 5:10-cv-00502 (N.D. Cal., Oct. 14, 2010), which dismissed similar claims over the phrase “0 Grams Trans Fat” on preemption grounds.

These types of claims illustrate the lengths to which plaintiffs are going to attack the food and beverage industries.  No one was sick from the snacks, which were labeled in exact accordance with explicit federal requirements.  Yet, a multi-count claim is brought in state court, with the legal theory that, in essence, federally approved language in one part of a food label is false and misleading under state law when it appears in another part of the same label. This is not about helping consumers.  How could it benefit consumers and clarify the information they have to make their own free and individual purchase decisions (with all the factors that go into what we decide to buy and eat) if the FDA-approved language in the Nutrient Facts Panel is allowed to be called false and misleading by a state court jury in California?