Monthly Archives: July 2017

Splitting Hairs Over Milk

** Class Actions Dismissed (and Stayed) on Question of Who Can Call Their Product Milk **                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

As anyone who has watched “Meet the Parents” knows, “milk” has traditionally been applied to mammalian products.  Recently, however, the term has been expanded to describe a wide range of non-dairy products such as liquids partially derived from almonds, oats, soy, rice, and cashews.  Can these products rightly be called “milk”?  Plaintiffs’ attorneys in California have decided to put that question to the test.  In Kelley v. WWF Operating Co., No. 1:17-CV-117-LJO-BAM, (E.D. Cal), plaintiffs based their suit on Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations dealing with “imitation” foods – defined by FDA as a food which “act[s] . . . [a]s a substitute for and resembles another food but is nutritionally inferior to that food.”  21 C.F.R. § 101.3 (e)(1).  Under these regulations, an imitation food must be clearly labelled (in a type of uniform size and prominence to the name of the food imitated) with the word “imitation.”  21 C.F.R. § 101.3 (e).  Otherwise, the product is “misbranded” under  section 403(c) of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.  In Kelly, plaintiffs alleged that WWF’s Silk Almond Milk beverages should have been labelled with the “imitation” nomenclature because they are not “milk”  and (in some respects) are nutritionally inferior.

Defendant responded with a motion to dismiss, arguing that no reasonable customer would be misled by the use of the term “almond milk” on its products because the consuming public knows exactly what it is getting – what Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as “a food product produced from seeds or fruit that resembles and is used similarly to cow’s milk.”

The Kelly case follows a broader, and as yet unresolved, public debate on this definition.  Indeed, there’s a war over the definition of milk.  Both the House and Senate are currently contemplating versions of the Defending Against Imitations and Replacements of Yogurt, Milk and Cheese to Promote Regular Intake of Dairy Everyday (DAIRY PRIDE) Act (H.R.778 House Version) (S.130 Senate Version).  The bills are sponsored by senators and congressmen from dairy rich states (Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT)). The House bill included five original co-sponsors: Rep. Michael Simpson (R-ID); Rep. Sean Duffy (R-WI); Rep. Joe Courtney (D-CT); Rep. David Valadao (R-CA); and Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-WA).  If enacted, the bills would amend the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to prohibit the sale of any food using the market name of a dairy product that is not the milk of a hooved animal, is not derived from such milk or does not contain such milk as a primary ingredient.  As supporters of the bills have observed (summed up by a quote from the Holstein Association USA): “After milking animals for 40 years I’ve never been able to milk an almond.”

FDA has not stepped into the fray  even though  it has been petitioned to do so.  In March 2017, FDA received a Citizen Petition from the Good Food Institute requesting it promulgate “regulations clarifying how foods may be named by reference to the names of other foods” and specifically requesting, among other things, that FDA issue regulations that would permit plant-based beverages to be called “milk.”  On the other side, the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) wrote in a letter addressed to the FDA and sent on August 29th that the application of dairy-related terms like “milk” to market plant-based beverages creates consumer confusion in the marketplace.

In Kelly, the Court was not troubled by FDA’s inaction.  It found that, because FDA was “poised” to consider the question raised by this suit (although it has never said as much), it was “on their radar,” and therefore FDA should have the opportunity to decide the question, itself.  Under the Primary Jurisdiction Doctrine – which we have blogged about in the past – the Court stayed the matter indefinitely.  Kelley v. WWF Operating Co., No. 1:17-CV-117-LJO-BAM, 2017 WL 2445836, at *6 (E.D. Cal. June 6, 2017).

In a similar case filed against Blue Diamond in California state court but transferred to the U.S. District Court for the Central District, the defendant was successful on its motion to dismiss.  Painter v. Blue Diamond Growers, No. 1:17-CV-02235-SVW-AJW, (C.D. Cal. May 24, 2017).  In that case, Judge Wilson held that it was completely implausible that there was consumer confusion.  Judge Wilson held that “Almond milk” accurately describes defendant’s product.  See Ang v. Whitewave Foods Co., No. 13-CV-1953, 2013 WL 6492353, at *3 (N.D. Cal. Dec. 10, 2013) (finding as a matter of law that no reasonable consumer would confuse soymilk or almond milk for dairy milk); Gilson v. Trader Joe’s Co., No. 13-CV-01333-WHO, 2013 WL 5513711, at *7 (N.D. Cal. Oct. 4, 20 13) (finding at the pleading stage that no reasonable consumer would believe that a product labeled Organic Soy Milk, including the explicit statement that it is “LACTOSE & DAIRY FREE”, has the same qualities as cow’s milk).  Quoting from the Ang court, Judge Wilson reasoned that a reasonable consumer knows veggie bacon does not contain pork, that flourless chocolate cake does not contain flour, and that e-books are not made out of paper.  Judge Wilson also held that plaintiff’s case would create a de facto labelling standard using state law that was stricter than the FDCA requirement and, therefore the case was preempted.  See also Gilson v. Trader Joe’s Co., No. 13-CV-01333-VC, 2015 WL 9121232, at *2 (N.D. Cal. Dec. 1, 20 15) (finding state law claims against the use of the term “soymilk” preempted by the FDCA).

Plaintiffs in the Painter case have appealed to the Ninth Circuit.  Painter v. Blue Diamond Growers, No. 17-55901 (9th. Cir. June 26, 2017).  We’ll keep you updated on the progress of the case.

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