Proposed Class Action Stayed Pending FDA Guidance

A California recently indicated he would stay a putative class action raising allegations  about labeling of “evaporated cane juice” pending a decision from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on sweetener labeling.  See Jennifer Shaouli v. Reed’s Inc., No.BC534738 (Sup. Ct. Los Angeles, Cal.).  The 2014 complaint can be found at 2014 WL 533701, and alleges various juice products, including defendant's  Hibiscus Ginger Grapefruit, Cranberry Ginger, Lemon Ginger Raspberry, Pomegranate Ginger, Coconut Water Lime, Passion Mango Ginger, and Cabernet Grape, were labeled misleadingly because they allegedly list “organic evaporated cane juice” as an ingredient. 

The Food and Drug Administration reopened the comment period on its draft guidance for industry on declaring "evaporated cane juice" as an ingredient on food labels. The agency originally published the draft guidance in October of 2009 and accepted comments through early December of that year. FDA reopened the comment period to obtain additional data and information to better understand the basic nature and characterizing properties of the ingredient, the methods of producing it, and the differences between this ingredient and other sweeteners.

The FDA is still mulling the new comments. And the court wisely decided it made little sense to proceed with the proposed class action until hearing from the FDA. Among the issues FDA is considering is whether the name “evaporated cane juice” adequately conveys the basic nature of the food and its characterizing properties or ingredients. 

Snack Bar Class Action Dismissed

An Illinois federal judge recently dismissed a proposed class action alleging the defendant somehow misled consumers about sugar in its snack bars despite the ingredient label.  See Rochelle Ibarrola v. Kind LLC, No. 3:13-cv-50377, 2015 WL 1188498 (N.D. Ill. 3/12/15).

Plaintiff brought a putative class action against a maker of food products, alleging she purchased its Vanilla Blueberry Clusters with Flax Seeds (“Vanilla Blueberry Clusters”)—on two occasions in 2013. Citing the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act (“ICFA”), 815 Ill. Comp. Stat. 505/1 et seq., she alleged that the packaging of Vanilla Blueberry Clusters was deceptive in that it claimed that the product contained “no refined sugars.” Specifically, she asserted that evaporated cane juice and molasses, identified on the products’ ingredient lists, are refined sugars. She proposed both a statewide and nationwide class of individuals who purchased any of defendant's four identified Healthy Grains products.

Defendant moved to dismiss, and the Court agreed that plaintiff had not plausibly alleged that a reasonable consumer would be deceived by the statements in light of the label information (and the express warranty claim was dismissed because she did not notify Kind of the alleged breach of warranty as required by Illinois law.)

To prevail on her ICFA claim, plaintiff had to allege and ultimately prove: (1) a deceptive act or practice by Kind, (2) that the deceptive act or practice occurred in the course of conduct involving trade or commerce, (3) that Kind intended that plaintiff rely on the deception, and (4) that the deception caused her actual damages. Oshana v. Coca–Cola Co., 472 F.3d 506, 513 (7th  Cir. 2006). In addition to these elements, common law fraud requires plaintiffs to allege that the plaintiff actually relied on the contested statement and that the defendant acted with scienter. Thacker v. Menard, Inc., 105 F.3d 382, 386 (7th Cir.1997).

Ibarrola claimed, somewhat obliquely, that she understood “no refined sugars” to mean that the Vanilla Blueberry Clusters contained only “naturally occurring” sugars that had not been refined at all.  But, said the Court, this is not plausible. The Court noted it must view the allegedly misleading statement in light of the information available to plaintiff at the time of her purchase.  Plaintiff stated that she read the entire product label before purchasing the Vanilla Blueberry Clusters. In doing so, she learned that the product contained evaporated cane juice and molasses—sweeteners that she alleged are at least partially refined.  That is, because she admitted reading the entire product label she thus saw that the product contained evaporated cane juice, and must have recognized that at least one of the sweeteners in the Vanilla Blueberry Clusters was derived from sugar cane. Thus, taken at her word, plaintiff alleged that she thought that Vanilla Blueberry Clusters contained sugar cane in its natural state, not having gone through any process to refine it.  But sugar cane in its natural state is a grass that contains jointed stalks resembling bamboo. The stalks are made up of fibrous flesh surrounded by bark!

Given this reality, no reasonable consumer would think—as plaintiff alleged that she did—that the sugar contained in the products was still in its natural, completely unrefined state.  Even though a reasonable consumer may not understand everything that happens to sugar cane before its derivative can be added as an ingredient, a reasonable consumer would know that all sugar cane-derived sweeteners suitable for human consumption must be at least partially refined. Reasonable consumers do not believe that they are eating straight sugar cane in Vanilla Blueberry Clusters or any other food product because sugar cane in its natural, unprocessed state is indigestible. That is, a reasonable consumer would recognize that, at the least, impurities or unwanted material must be removed from sugar cane before it can be used as an ingredient in Vanilla Blueberry Clusters, and thus, that all sugar cane-derived sweeteners require some form of  “refining,” as the dictionary defines the term.

Thus, the Court found that the only reasonable conclusion after reading the entire Vanilla Blueberry Clusters label is that defendant used the word “refined” as a term of art to distinguish only partially refined sugars like evaporated cane juice and molasses from fully refined sugars like table sugar.

 

Courts have dismissed other complaints premised on such logical inconsistencies. E.g., Rooney v. Cumberland Packaging Corp.,  No. 12–CV–0033–H DHB, 2012 WL 1512106, at *4 (S.D.Cal. Apr. 16, 2012). See also Kane v. Chobani, Inc., No. 12–CV–02425–LHK, 2013 WL 5289253, at *6 (N.D.Cal. Sept. 19, 2013).

Here, because plaintiff already had an opportunity to amend, the dismissal was with prejudice.

 

Federal Court Dismisses Cane Juice Class Under Primary Jurisdiction Doctrine

A California federal court took a second look and decided to dismiss a proposed class action related to the ingredient “evaporated cane juice” in guacamole products. See  Swearingen et al. v. Yucatan Foods LP, No. 3:13-cv-03544 (N.D. Cal. 2014).

I am told that guacamole actually dates back to at least the 16th century, and was first made by the Aztecs in Mexico.  The 21st century issue relates to Plaintiffs in this putative class action claiming that use of the term “evaporated cane juice” in the product was unlawful in light of federal food labeling laws and regulations -- and therefore violative of California’s Sherman and Unfair Competition Laws.

Defendants moved to dismiss based on the doctrine of primary jurisdiction.  The primary jurisdiction doctrine applies when there is: (1) [a] need to resolve an issue that (2) has been placed by Congress within the jurisdiction of an administrative body having regulatory authority (3) pursuant to a statute that subjects an industry or activity to a comprehensive regulatory authority that (4) requires expertise or uniformity in administration. See Clark v. Time Warner, 523 F.3d 1110, 1115 (9th Cir. 2008). The doctrine of primary jurisdiction is not designed to secure expert advice from agencies every time a court is presented with an issue conceivably within the agency’s ambit. It is to be used if a claim requires resolution of an issue of first impression, or of a particularly complicated issue that Congress has committed to a regulatory agency.

Here, the court originally denied the motion, in light of the fact that the FDA had not yet finalized a draft guidance issued more than four years ago, and that it continued to issue warning letters consistent with that earlier position.  However, on March 5, 2014, the FDA issued a notice in the Federal Register reopening the comment period for the draft guidance first issued on October 7, 2009, relative to the use of the term “evaporated cane juice.” That notice stated: “We have not reached a final decision on the common or usual name for this ingredient and are reopening the comment period to request further comments, data, and information about the basic nature and characterizing properties of the ingredient sometimes declared as ‘‘evaporated cane juice,’ how this ingredient is produced, and how it compares with other sweeteners.” In light of this notice, Yucatan moved for reconsideration of the court’s prior order.

Plaintiffs argued in response to the motion that the FDA is not engaged in formal rulemaking, and that even final guidance would not be binding on either the agency or manufacturers. See 21 C.F.R. § 10.115 (“Guidance documents do not establish legally enforceable rights or responsibilities. They do not legally bind the public or FDA.”).  But the notice did indicate that the FDA is actively engaged with the very issue presented in this litigation, one which has prompted a flurry of litigation in the federal courts.  The court noted that the question of evaporated cane juice labeling presents a host of technical issues uniquely within the agency’s expertise. For example, the FDA has specifically solicited comment on the basic nature and characterizing properties of the ingredient in question, and the difference between this ingredient and other sweeteners made from sugar cane.  Deferring to the FDA for resolution of these issues would enhance decision-making and efficiency by allowing the court to take advantage of administrative expertise.

A court presented with an issue to which agency deference is due under the primary jurisdiction doctrine has the discretion either to stay the case or to dismiss it without prejudice. Normally, if the court concludes that the dispute which forms the basis of the action is within the agency’s primary jurisdiction, the case should be dismissed so that the parties may pursue their administrative remedies. Syntek Semiconductor Co. v. Microchip Tech., Inc., 307 F.3d 775, 782 (9th Cir. 2002). Here, concluded the court, it was not necessary in this case for the court to maintain jurisdiction. Plaintiffs in this case sought primarily injunctive relief on behalf of a putative class for various products purchased throughout a four-year period preceding this litigation. Should some amount of time elapse before the FDA issued final guidance on this issue, no particular disadvantage inured to the plaintiffs.