Is the Primary Jurisdiction Doctrine Alive Again for “Natural” Defendants?

 ** Ninth Circuit Stays Natural Case In “Food Court” **

The doctrine of primary jurisdiction is a prudential means to stay or dismiss a party’s claims if the claims are better adjudicated or answered by an administrative agency – it “is concerned with promoting proper relationships between the courts and administrative agencies charged with particular regulatory duties.” Ellis v. Tribune Television Co., 443 F.3d 71, 81 (2d Cir.2006). It is properly applied “whenever enforcement of the claim requires the resolution of issues which, under a regulatory scheme, have been placed within the special competence of an administrative body.” Id. When applicable, “a court defers to the agency for advisory findings and either stays the pending action or dismisses it without prejudice” Johnson v. Nyack Hosp., 86 F.3d 8, 11 (2d Cir.1996).

Courts must make a case-by-case determination when considering primary jurisdiction.   In doing so, they generally focus on: (1) whether the question at issue is within the conventional experience of judges or whether it involves technical or policy considerations within the agency’s particular field of expertise; (2) whether the question at issue is particularly within the agency’s discretion; (3) whether there exists a substantial danger of inconsistent rulings; and (4) whether a prior application to the agency has been made. Nat’l Commc’ns Ass’n v. AT & T, 46 F.3d 220, 222 (2d Cir.1995).

There was a time when “primary jurisdiction” was in vogue for “all natural” defendants because of the perception that the FDA was the proper administrative body to answer the question of what sort of ingredients and products qualify as “natural.”  The leading case was Astiana v. Hain Celestial Grp., Inc., 905 F. Supp. 2d 1013 (N.D. Cal. 2012). This case involved Hain Celestial’s cosmetics products with labels including “All Natural,” “Pure Natural,” or “Pure, Natural & Organic.” In this case, the putative nationwide class representatives alleged that they had been duped into purchasing Hain’s cosmetics that allegedly contained synthetic and artificial ingredients such as benzyl alcohol.  As is typical in such cases, the plaintiffs sought damages and injunctive relief under a variety of theories including statutory violations under the California’s Consumer Legal Remedies Act. The district court dismissed the case, applying primary jurisdiction, holding that “[in] the absence of any FDA rules or regulations (or even informal policy statements) regarding the use of the word “natural” on cosmetics labels, the court declines to make any independent determination of whether defendants’ use of “natural” was false or misleading. Doing so would “risk undercutting the FDA’s expert judgments and authority.” Other district courts invoked the agency’s primary jurisdiction to wait and see if the FDA intended to offer  regulations regarding the use of the term “natural” (in particular in GMO food cases). In re Gen. Mills, Inc. Kix Cereal Litig., No. CIV–A–12–249 KM, 2013 WL 5943972 (D.N.J. Nov. 1, 2013), Barnes v. Campbell Soup Co., No. C12–05185 JSW, 2013 WL 5530017 (N.D.Cal. July 25, 2013) (GMO food case), Cox v. Gruma Corp., No. 12–CV–6502 YGR, 2013 WL 3828800 (N.D.Cal. July 11, 2013) (GMO case).

Undeterred by the district court’s dismissal, the Plaintiffs in Astiana went on a two pronged attack. They went directly to the FDA seeking guidance on the definition of “natural.”  The FDA responded by letter stating – “cosmetic public health and safety matters are currently fully occupying the resources that FDA has available for proceedings on cosmetics matters” and “proceedings to define ‘natural’ do not fit within [the agency’s] current health and safety priorities.” Plaintiffs also appealed to the Ninth Circuit.  Astiana v. Hain Celestial Grp., Inc., 783 F.3d 753, 759 (9th Cir. 2015). The Ninth Circuit held that — while the district’s court primary jurisdiction doctrine decision was not wrong — it should have stayed the matter awaiting an FDA response. Upon remand, the district court revisited the primary jurisdiction argument and, recognizing that the recent FDA letter demonstrated that the FDA has no interest in the subject matter and, therefore,  referral to the FDA would be futile, the court denied defendant’s motion to stay on primary jurisdiction grounds. Astiana v. Hain Celestial Grp., Inc., No. 4:11-cv-06342-PJH (N.D. Cal. October 9, 2015) (Dkt. No. 114).

Courts in other jurisdictions have followed this same rejection of the primary jurisdiction doctrine argument made by cosmetic company defendants in “natural” cases. Goldemberg v. Johnson & Johnson Consumer Companies, Inc., 8 F. Supp. 3d 467, 476 (S.D.N.Y. 2014) (“the FDA has not begun to promulgate a rule concerning the term natural in cosmetics . . [i]nstead, it recently declined to make such a determination . . . [t]hus, as the agency is not simultaneously contemplating the same issue . . . this factor weighs against applying the primary jurisdiction doctrine”); Paulino v. Conopco, Inc., No. 14-CV-5145 JG RML, 2015 WL 4895234, at *1 (E.D.N.Y. Aug. 17, 2015); Langan v. Johnson & Johnson Consumer Companies, Inc., 95 F. Supp. 3d 284, 290 (D. Conn. 2015); Fagan v. Neutrogena Corp., No. 5:13-CV-01316-SVW-OP, 2014 WL 92255, at *1 (C.D. Cal. Jan. 8, 2014) (“Plaintiffs’ claims are not barred by the doctrine of primary jurisdiction . . . [as the] FDA has affirmed that proceedings to define the term natural in the context of cosmetics do not fit within its current health and safety priorities.”); see also Reid v. GMC Skin Care USA Inc., No. 815CV277BKSCFH, 2016 WL 403497, at *1 (N.D.N.Y. Jan. 15, 2016) (rejecting primary jurisdiction in case alleging that face cream with “DNA repair effect” statements was misleading); Randolph v. J.M. Smucker Co., No. 13-80581-CIV, 2014 WL 1018007, at *6 (S.D. Fla. Mar. 14, 2014).

At the same time that the primary jurisdiction doctrine was being buried with respect to “natural” claims, it remained viable in various food cases, particularly those presenting discrete technical questions, i.e. Backus v. Gen. Mills, Inc., 122 F. Supp. 3d 909, 933 (N.D. Cal. 2015) (primary jurisdiction invoked on question of the amount of trans fat in baked goods that is safe); Saubers v. Kashi Co., 39 F. Supp. 3d 1108 (S.D. Cal. 2014) (primary jurisdiction invoked with respect to “evaporated cane juice” labels) (collecting cases). The basis for primary jurisdiction in particular in the ECJ cases is that that FDA has indicated that it WILL issue regulatory guidance on evaporated cane juice – but not until the end of 2016. See also Draft Guidance for Industry on Ingredients Declared as Evaporated Cane Juice; Reopening of Comment Period; Request for Comments, Data, and Information, 79 Fed.Reg. 12,507 (Mar. 5, 2014).  Most evaporated cane juice cases are currently stayed (or dismissed) see, e.g., Gitson, et al. v. Clover-Stornetta Farms, Inc., Case No. 3:13-cv-01517-EDL (N.D. Cal. Jan. 7, 2016) (extending ECJ stay for an additional 180 days, until August 2016) (Laporte, J.); Swearingen v. Amazon Preservation Partners, Inc., Case No. 13-cv-04402-WHO (N.D. Cal. Jan. 11, 2016) (Orrick, J.) (extending ECJ stay and continuing case management conference until July 2016). A few judges have lifted the ECJ stay (impatient at the FDA’s movement) but they appear to be out-liers. See Figy v. Lifeway Foods, Inc., No. 3:13-cv-4828-TEH (N.D. Cal. Jan. 4, 2016), Dkt. No. 57; Swearingen v. Pacific Foods of Oregon, Inc., No. 13-cv-04157 (N.D. Cal. Jan. 5, 2015), Dkt. No. 61.

But we digress.  Back to “natural” and a significant development.  In November 2015, the FDA issued a request for comments regarding the use of the term “natural” in connection with food product labeling. See Use of the Term “Natural” in the Labeling of Human Food Products; Request for Information and Comments, 80 Fed. Reg. 69,905 (Nov. 12, 2015)See our previous blog post.  While noteworthy in and of itself, the FDA’s requests for comments also raised the secondary issue of whether the FDA’s new-found interest in potentially defining “natural” with respect to foods  triggers the primary jurisdiction doctrine?   Last week, the Ninth Circuit answered – Yes. In Kane v. Chobani, LLC, No. 14-15670, 2016 WL 1161782, at *1 (9th Cir. Mar. 24, 2016), the circuit court dealt with an appeal from the Northern District of California where buyers of Chobani fruit flavored Greek yogurt filed suit against  the company alleging that its labels and advertising violated California law because the “all natural” yogurt included fruit juice and turmeric.  Before the district court, the plaintiffs had a difficult time articulating why it was plausible to allege that fruit juice and turmeric are unnatural vacillating between the argument that it is unnatural to use these ingredients to color yogurt and the argument that the fruit juices at issue were so heavily processed that they are no longer natural.  Ultimately the district court found that the case warranted dismissal on Rule 9(b) and 12(b)(6) grounds. Kane v. Chobani, LLC, 973 F. Supp. 2d 1120, 1138 (N.D. Cal. 2014).  Plaintiffs appealed on the basis that under primary jurisdiction their case should have been stayed – not dismissed. And the Ninth Circuit agreed,  vacating the dismissal and remanding to the district court under a stay pending resolution of the FDA’s “natural” proceedings. So a win for the plaintiffs in Chobani – but one that defendants will take careful note of – in the Ninth Circuit and beyond.


Share this:

No Parm, No Foul?

** Class actions Filed Following Bloomberg Reports of Cellulose Filling in Parmesan Cheese **                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       iStock_000015614674_Medium Two putative class action lawsuits have been filed over cellulose in parmesan cheese – one in federal court in New York against Wal-Mart (Moschetta v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., S.D.N.Y., No. 16-13770) and one in the Northern District of California against the newly merged Kraft Heinz group (Lewin v. Kraft Heinz Foods Co., 316-cv-00823).  Plaintiffs’ counsel wasted no time filing their lawsuits after Bloomberg Business published a February 16, 2016 online article regarding the common practice of cheese makers adding cellulose (plant pulp) to grated parmesan cheese.  Bloomberg had various brands of grated parmesan tested by an independent laboratory and reported the results of at least some of those tests — Essential Everyday 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese sold by Jewel-Osco tested at 8.6% cellulose, Wal-Mart’s Great Value 100% Grated Parmesan weighed in at 7.8% cellulose, and the ubiquitous Kraft 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese registered 3.8%.  Some grated parmesan makers list cellulose as an ingredient on their labels as an additive “to prevent caking.”  The FDA has no specific regulations regarding the amount of cellulose in grated cheeses (and most other foods), and it is a common food additive — cutting calories (it’s non-digestible), reducing fat content, and providing a source of dietary fiber.

While it is unclear what prompted Bloomberg to commission the lab tests, they came in the wake of a federal criminal prosecution of the now-defunct Castle Cheese Inc. and its CEO, Michelle Myrter, on food adulteration and misbranding charges.  Castle Cheese, however, was a different beast altogether where the problem was not only the addition of cellulose, but the fact that its parmesan cheese did not contain any parmesan at all (rather, a combination of Swiss, white cheddar, Havarti, and mozzarella – sometimes from the rinds).  A ex-employee blew the whistle on Castle, which was investigated by the FDA in 2014.  Castle declared bankruptcy shortly thereafter.

The U.S. parmesan business seems beset on all sides by detractors.  The  Italian Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium recently published the results of a consumer survey it commissioned that purportedly showed that Americans who viewed a package of parmesan cheese that “recalled” an Italian flag believed that Italy was the country of origin for that cheese and, even in less suggestive packaging, 38% of those surveyed believed the cheese to have been made in Italy.  The Italian consortium is taking its complaint that U.S. consumers are being duped into buying parmesan they believe is made in Italy to Brussels in the hope that they will be dealt with in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership trade agreement (T-TIP).  Currently, cheese makers are prevented under European Union protected designations of origin regulations (“PDOs”) from labeling their cheeses as parmesan if they are not made by dairies in Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and parts of the provinces of Mantua and Bologna.  If this regulation was “imported” into the US, would the millions of 4-17 year olds who dump the off-white powder onto their noodles take note?

Share this:

FDA Seeks All Natural Comments

Green apple with stethoscope

**Are we a step closer to solving the All Natural problem?**

There are problems faced by “All Natural” or “100% Natural” defendants.  See prior post. A specific problem for defendants is the inability to rely on any definitive Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidance.  The FDA’s position has been clear – it “has not promulgated a formal definition of the term ‘natural’ with respect to foods.”  See Letter Leslie Kux, Assistant Commissioner for Policy, Food and Drug Administration, to the United States District Court, Northern District of California, dated January 7, 2014.  To date the FDA has created only an “informal policy statement.” Janney v. Mills, 944 F. Supp. 2d 806, 812 (N.D. Cal. 2013) (citing 58 Fed. Reg. 2302–01).  If there was federal regulation – defendants would have clarity in their positions – and state law claim would likely be pre-empted, see e.g., Lam v. General Mills, Inc., 859 F.Supp.2d 1097, 1102–03 (N.D.Cal.2012). In the absence of regulation, the question of what “natural” means and whether a product’s labeling violates the law is currently governed by an unwieldy “reasonable consumer standard”.  Williams v. Gerber Prods. Co., 552 F.3d 934, 938 (9th Cir.2008) citing Freeman v. Time, Inc., 68 F.3d 285, 289 (9th Cir.1995)). This lack of objective standards is one of the reasons why the litigation has been able to take hold – at the same time as “natural” labeled food has boomed (the Washington Post reports that nearly $40.7 billion worth of food items in the U.S. has some labeling of this type). Fortunatley, the FDA has changed tack – responding, inter alia, to requests from Federal Courts and a citizen petition from the Grocery Manufacturers Association it has published a Federal Register notice asking for information and comments on the use of the term “natural” in food labeling. Specifically, the FDA asks for information and public comment on questions such as: whether it is appropriate to define the term “natural,”; if so, how the agency should define “natural,”; and how the agency should determine appropriate use of the term on food labels.  Notably, the FDA notes that it may be looking to expand its policy on natural foods to include – not only the synthetic/artificial divide, but also questions of whether pesticide free and manufacturing processes should be part of the equation.  The FDA is accepting public comments beginning on November 12, 2015 and finishing February 10, 2016.  Comments may be submitted electronically (under FDA-2014-N-1207).


Share this:

FDA Issues Not so Kind Letter to Nut Bar Maker

Arrangement of Useful Granola Bars with Muesli, Nuts, Dried Apricots and Bowl of Honey closeup on Black Stone background. Top View

**Food and Drug Administration Moves on Kind Bars to Force Them to Remove “Healthy” Labels** . . .                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

The KIND® company makes a range of snack bars sold under the tag line “ingredients you can see & pronounce” – primarily manufactured with nuts, grains and dried fruit.  While to the casual observer such foods would be considered “healthy,” the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has asked the company, pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 343(r)(1)(A) to remove any mention of the term  from its packaging and website (as well as the “+” symbol).  See Warning Letter.  The basis for the FDA’s action is that the term “healthy” and the symbol “+” have specifically defined meanings when they are applied to food labeling.  According to 21 CFR 101.65(d)(2), the term “healthy” means that the food has a number of objective health measures, for example, the food must have saturated fat content of 1 g or less and must have no more than 15 percent of the calories from saturated fat (see also 21 CFR 101.62(c)(2)).  The FDA asserts that certain Kind Bars, such as their Fruit & Nut Almond & Apricot, Fruit & Nut Almond & Coconut and Fruit & Nut Dark Chocolate Cherry Cashew + Antioxidants all contain at least twice the base amount of saturated fat and all had more than 15% in total of their caloric measure in saturated fat.  Notably, the “+” symbol is also regulated.  According to 21 CFR 101.54(e), “+” can only be used where the food has at least 10 percent more of the Reference Daily Intake (RDI) of the nutrient value of specific baseline reference foods.  According to the FDA, the Kind Bars do not contain that reference adjacent to the “+” sign on their labels.    Many nutritionists have sided with Kind stating that the regulation limiting saturated fats should exclude such fats from nuts because they are inherently healthful.  Kind’s public statement appears however, to suggest they are complying with the mandate of the warning letter.

Share this: