Sometimes a decision bounces around a bit before it lands on our plates. But when we finally spot it and read it, we realize it might be worth a quick chew. It may be a tasty little tidbit like a particularly good Twiqbal decision outside the drug/device arena. A savory morsel on a regulatory scheme and preemption involving an agency other than the FDA. And, sometimes it can be a sour bite – the type that makes your lips pucker and want to spit it out. That’s precisely what we’d like to do with almost all of a recent decision by the Central District of California – spit it out and throw it away. Since we can’t do that – we decided we’d blog about it.
If our above metaphors weren’t obvious enough, we’re talking about a food case – Briseno v. ConAgra Foods, Inc., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 154750 (C.D. Cal. Nov. 23, 2011). And, I guess we can start with the good news – the case was dismissed without prejudice under Rule 9(b) for failure to plead fraud with particularity. Id. at *29-41. While we applaud the court for getting it right on the deficiency of the pleadings – they left the door wide open for this suit to spring back to life. That’s the sour part.
The case is about oil – not the black gold kind – the kind we pour on salads and use to fry chicken. Wesson Oil to be exact. Do you remember the Florence Henderson TV commercials from the 1970s – “Your chicken has a certain Wessonality” and 1980s – “with every bite you know you’re frying right.” Who wouldn’t buy cooking oil from Mrs. Brady (wait a minute, didn’t Alice do all the cooking?). In fact, some form of Wesson cooking oil has been on the market since the 1860s. So, who can possibly have a problem with it? Answer: a group of plaintiffs who filed a nationwide putative class action alleging that Wesson’s labeling of the product as “100% Natural” is false and misleading because the manufacturer “uses plants grown from genetically modified organism seeds.” Briseno, at *4. We direct your attention back to the 1980s Mrs. Brady ad – Wesson’s label has said 100% Natural since at least then – 25 years ago. So what’s the problem? And, if this is a food labeling issue – why isn’t it preempted? Like we said, we’re making the lemon face.
Plaintiffs alleged causes of action for violations of California’s false advertising law (“FAL”), unfair competition law (“UCL”), Consumer Legal Remedies Act (“CLRA”), and breach of express warranty. In addition to restitution, plaintiffs sought 1) “a permanent injunction enjoining ConAgra from continuing to harm [plaintiffs]” and 2) “an order requiring ConAgra to adopt and enforce a policy that requires appropriate disclosure of genetically modified ingredients and/or removal of misleading natural claims.” Id. at 5-6. We mention these two requests because somehow the court found #2 was preempted but #1 was not. If the alleged harm is that the FDA-approved label says “100% Natural” and doesn’t identify genetically modified ingredients, then isn’t an injunction to stop that harm a court-ordered revision of the label? In other words, a state law requirement that ConAgra label its product differently than what is required by the FDA? We fail to see how the requested injunctive relief is different from an order requiring removal of “natural” claims. They both have the same effect – a change of the label contrary to the requirements of the FDA. So shouldn’t both be preempted?
To try to understand the court’s reasoning, let’s start where it did – the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (“NLEA”) which contains an express preemption provision:
[N]o State or political subdivision of a State may directly or indirectly establish under any authority or continue in effect as to any food in interstate commerce . . . any requirement respecting any claim . . . made in the label or labeling of food that is not identical to the requirement . . . of this title.
21 U.S.C. § 343-1(a)(5). We think this is the equivalent of “Check, please.” This meal is over – case preempted. But even if there remain a few notches on the belt that can be loosened to allow for another course, we don’t think the analysis leads to the conclusion the court reached here.
The Briseno court cites other cases where plaintiffs claimed to have been misled by a manufacturer’s use of the term “all natural” (usually dealing with the inclusion of high fructose corn syrup) and those claims were held to be not preempted. We’d probably disagree with the reasoning of those decisions as well. What we found more interesting was the court’s attempt to distinguish this case from others where plaintiffs were asking the court to require a manufacturer to change a label that was permissible by the FDA. For example, they dismiss the holding in Dvora v. General Mills, Inc., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55513 (C.D. Cal. May 16, 2011) as inapplicable. There plaintiffs alleged that the manufacturer’s advertising of “Total Blueberry Pomegranate” cereal was false and misleading. In finding the claims preempted, that court said:
Defendant persuasively argues that Plaintiff's lawsuit seeks to impose requirements that are not identical to th[e] regulatory scheme. First, Plaintiff apparently seeks to forbid General Mills from labeling its product “Total Blueberry Pomegranate,” even though such descriptions of “characterizing flavor” are expressly authorized by federal law. Second, Plaintiff appears to demand that General Mills affirmatively state on the package that the cereal “does not actually contain blueberries or pomegranates,” even though FDA regulations would not require this. Third, Plaintiff objects to the depiction of brown colored “clusters” that (according to Plaintiff) allegedly “resemble blueberries and/or pomegranate seeds,” even though FDA regulations would have permitted General Mills to depict even fresh blueberries and pomegranates on its box.
Dvora, at *4. That’s different from the Wesson Oil case how? The FDA regulations don’t prohibit pictures of blueberries on the cereal box just like they don’t prohibit defendant from putting “100% Natural” on its bottle. If the lawsuit “seeks to impose requirements that are not identical to the regulatory scheme” – the claims are preempted. The regulatory scheme here seems to have allowed a claim of “100% Natural” for at least 25 years. A court order that requires that claim be removed is most certainly “not identical.” Indeed, the Briseno court itself found:
Congress and the FDA have thoroughly regulated the manner in which ingredients must be listed on packages, including specifying how oil products must be labeled. See, e.g., 21 U.S.C. § 343(i)(2); 21 CFR § 101.4(b)(14). Entering an order of the type Briseno seeks would impose a requirement that is not identical to federal law, and his prayer for such relief is thus preempted.
Briseno, at *26-27 (emphasis added). Again, we are left perplexed by the court’s ability to use this analysis to reach different conclusions on two claims that seek the same relief – a change in the label.
The court seemed to be singularly focused on the fact that despite the “considerable interest to consumers and industry,” FDA has not sought to define terms like “natural” in the food context (FDA invokes the “limited resources” defense). Id. at *16. But that doesn’t change the fact that Congress has empowered FDA – not the judiciary – with controlling the labeling content of food. So, we also support ConAgra’s second argument, that if not preempted, the case should be dismissed or stayed under the doctrine of primary jurisdiction.
[P]rimary jurisdiction is properly invoked when a claim is cognizable in federal court but requires resolution of an issue of first impression, or of a particularly complicated issue that Congress has committed to a regulatory agency.
Id. at *28 (citation omitted). Essentially, the doctrine provides that courts may decide that for the sake of “better informed and uniform legal rulings,” initial decision-making responsibility should be performed by an agency with “specialized knowledge, expertise, and central position within a regulatory regime.” Id. at *27. If the agency entrusted to decide these issues has yet to resolve the question, why should the courts?
This is something we like to call “judicial triumphalism” – the use of tort litigation for social purposes to induce courts to step in and make decisions on issues that are more competently addressed by other branches of government – here the FDA. If people want to attack the use of genetically modified food, they should be going to Congress and the FDA and courts should be stepping aside, rather than be used as a platform for the advancement of social causes. If you haven’t already guessed, the court was not persuaded by the primary jurisdiction argument either. One of the court’s reasons was because FDA has not shown an indication that will “provide guidance on the use of the term ‘natural’ in the immediate future.” Id. at *29. Well, maybe if the champions of this cause were properly blocked from using the courthouse to fight their battle, they would re-direct their efforts where they belong – at the FDA.
FYI – plaintiffs did file an amended class action complaint and defendant has filed another motion to dismiss set to be heard next month – so stay tuned, we haven’t reached the final course. Although we aren’t optimistic that what’s coming will be any easier to swallow.