Food

Healthy Conscious

** FDA Updating Requirements for “Healthy” Claims on Food Labeling **

One of the trending areas we have blogged about last year was “healthy” claims in food labelling becoming the new “all natural” target; see Hunter v. Nature’s Way Prod., LLC, No. 16CV532-WQH-BLM, 2016 WL 4262188, at *1 (S.D. Cal. Aug. 12, 2016) (Coconut Oil); Campbell v. Campbell Soup Co., No 3:16-cv-01005 (S.D. Cal. August 8, 2016) (Dkt 18) (Healthy Request® canned soups); Lanovaz v. Twinings N. Am., Inc., No. 5:12-CV-02646-RMW (N.D. Cal. September 6, 2016) (Twinings bagged tea).  It is a lucrative area for the plaintiff’s bar.  James Boswell et al. v. Costco Wholesale Corp., No. 8:16-cv-00278 (C.D. Cal) (recent $750,000 coconut oil settlement based on “healthy” labeling).

In many respects this trend was kicked off in 2015 by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) who issued the KIND® company a not so kind letter asking the company, pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 343(r)(1)(A) to remove any mention of the term “healthy” from its packaging and website.  See our prior blog post.  The basis for the FDA’s action is that the term “healthy” has specifically defined meanings under 21 CFR 101.65(d)(2) which includes objective measures such as saturated fat content (must be > 1 g) (see 21 CFR 101.62(c)(2)).  Later in 2016 the FDA seemingly had a change of heart – emailing Kind and stating that the company can return the “healthy” language – as long use “healthy” is used in relation to its “corporate philosophy,” not as a nutrient claim.

Notably, this sparked a wider public health debate about the meaning of “healthy” and whether the focus, for example on the type of fat rather than the total amount of fat consumed, should be reconsidered in light of evolving science on the topic.  In September 2016 the FDA issued a guidance document (Guidance for Industry: Use of the Term “Healthy” in the Labeling of Human Food Products) stating that FDA does not intend to enforce the regulatory requirements for products that use the term healthy if the food is not low in total fat, but has a fat profile makeup of predominantly mono and polyunsaturated fats.

The FDA also requested public comment on the “Use of the Term “Healthy” in the Labeling of Human Food Products” – which comment period ended this week. Comments poured in from consumers and industry stakeholders, reaching 1,100 before the period closed on April 26, 2017. The FDA has not provided a timeline as to when revisions to the definition of “healthy” might occur following these public comments – and it is not clear if President Donald Trump’s January executive order, requiring that two regulations be nixed for every new rule that is passed, will hinder the FDA’s ability to issue a rulemaking on the term “healthy” in the near future.  It is also not clear whether the FDA will combine the rulemaking with its current musing of use of the term “natural” – as the terms are sometimes used synonymously.  Industry groups (and the defense bar) are hopeful though that some clarity will come sooner rather than later.

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Sugar in Missouri

** Do we have a new “sue-me” State for Food and Class Litigators? **                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      As we blogged about in the past the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued guidance in 2016 that it is false or misleading to describe sweeteners made from sugar cane as “evaporated cane juice” (ECJ). Guidance for Industry: Ingredients Declared as Evaporated Cane Juice.  As anticipated this has opened the way forward for cases against companies using the ECJ term, including of course those cases where the matter had been stayed under the primary jurisdiction doctrine.  Much of this ECJ litigation continues to be focused in state and federal courts in California.

That said, plaintiffs are also filing in other venues.  Missouri for one is becoming increasingly well-known as a plaintiff-friendly jurisdiction following full throated verdicts in product liability cases, such as the $70 million talcum powder case.  And food labeling suits are increasingly being filed as well in this new “sue me” State (in particular, St. Louis City – the 22nd Judicial Circuit, has been called one of “worst places in the nation for a corporation to be sued” and the new hot spot for litigation tourists.”)  In a recent win for the Plaintiff’s bar with respect to food litigation and labeling claims, a Missouri state court of appeals recently issued an opinion rejecting defenses successful in sister courts. In Murphy v. Stonewall Kitchen, LLC, 503 S.W.3d 308, 310 (Mo. Ct. App. 2016) brought under the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act (MMPA) the plaintiff (and putative class representative) alleged Stonewall Kitchen misrepresented that its cupcake mix was “all natural” when it contained leavening agent sodium acid pyrophosphate (SAPP).  The trial court, relying on the  decision in Kelly v. Cape Cod Potato Chip Co., 81 F.Supp.3d 754 (W.D. Mo. 2015), granted the motion reasoning that because the ingredient label clearly disclosed the presence of SAPP, it was not plausible that a consumer would believe the “all natural” representation on the product including the SAPP.  The Court of Appeals reversed, expressly rejecting the ingredient list defense.

Since Murphy, at least 16 cases have recently been filed in St. Louis on the topic of evaporated cane juice alone.  The targeted defendants include manufacturers of Pacqui Corn Chips (Dominique Morrison v. Amplify Snack Brands Inc., No. 4:17-cv-00816-RWS (E.D. Mo.), Jelly Belly jelly beans(Jason Allen v. Jelly Belly Candy Company, No. 4:17-cv-00588 (E.D. Mo.), and Bakery on Main granola (Callanan v. Garden of Light, Inc., No. 4:17-cv-01377 (E.D. Mo.).  The cases do appear connected, many having the same plaintiff’s counsel.  It is likely too early to call St. Louis the new “food court” – we’ll monitor it throughout the year though to see if it is a “flash in the pan” or not.

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How Not To Advertise Your Supplement

** FTC Claims Major Scalp in Fake News Case **                                                                                                                                                              

The recent political season has contributed new words to our lexicon — “alternative facts” (Thanks, Kellyanne!) and “fake news.”  While these terms may sound novel to us, the Federal Trade Commission has long taken action to curb such practices in commercial advertising under its mandate to enforce prohibitions on unfair or deceptive acts or practices (15 U.S.C. § 45(a)) and specifically false advertisements for food, drugs, devices, services, or cosmetics (15 U.S.C. § 52).

Recently, the FTC obtained a $29+ million personal judgment (ouch!) against a Tampa Bay businessman based on advertising the FTC claimed lacked scientific substantiation and misled consumers by using a fake news site and article.  Fed. Trade Comm’n v. NPB Advert., Inc., No. 8:14-CV-1155-T-23TGW, 2016 WL 6493923, at *9 (M.D. Fla. Nov. 2, 2016).  The case centered around one Nicholas Congleton, who — inspired by a clip from The Dr. Oz Show discussing a clinical study of the weight loss effects of green coffee extract (the Vinson Study) — founded Pure Green Coffee.  The business was largely operated online, relying on search engine and other digital advertisements (click bait) to the tune of $9.5 million.  This advertising investment proved to be money well spent.  From 2012 to 2014, Pure Green Coffee generated gross receipts just shy of $34 million.

Much of Pure Green Coffee’s advertising practices are standard grist for the FTC mill – inadequate substantiation for efficacy claims, unsupported establishment claims, and customer testimonials.  Pure Green Coffee promised consumers fabulous results – twenty-eight pounds in nine weeks or ten pounds and one-to-two inches of belly-fat in a month.  Although Mr. Congleton admitted in his deposition that he had no scientific basis for Pure Green Coffee’s weight loss claims, in opposition to the FTC’s motion for summary judgment he cited to “news articles, blog entries, and manufacturers’ brochures” (non-starters) as well as nine studies – chief among them, the Vinson Study Dr. Oz discussed on TV.  Unfortunately, most of the studies either did not involve green coffee extract or weight loss.  The Vinson Study was debunked by the FTC’s expert on several bases – but primarily because Dr. Vinson, himself, withdrew it.

The FTC based its argument that Pure Green Coffee made establishment claims in its ads in part on a photo —  a man wearing a white doctor’s coat and stethoscope holding a pill.   The Court found that this image implied that a physician or scientist had established Pure Green Coffee’s efficacy.   As for testimonials, Pure Green Coffee’s online ads committed the cardinal sin – they did not disclose that the participants were compensated.

Which brings us to fake news.  Pure Green Coffee purchased the domain “dailyconsumeralert.org” and loaded the page with a spoof banner for “Women’s Health Journal,” a list of several health- or fitness-related categories, and a fake article by a non-existent columnist that offered a purportedly unbiased test of the efficacy of green coffee extract that Mr. Congleton copied and pasted from another website.  The online ad also employed the ever popular “AS SEEN ON” advertising device next to the logos of CBS, ABC, MSNBC, and CNN – creating the impression that these networks reported favorably on Pure Green Coffee.  The court found that the webpage appeared as a bona fide news outlet and thus misled consumers — despite Mr. Congleton placing the word, “Advertorial” at the top.

Mr. Congleton’s case was not a particularly difficult one for the FTC.  But it nevertheless presents a cautionary tale to supplement sellers.  First, the more specific the claim, the closer the FTC will scrutinize the substantiation.  Depending on the nature of the claim the F.T.C. will require the study to include randomized clinical trials, human as opposed to animal proxy trials, and will take a hard look at the methodology and controls in the testing.  Second, images of folks in white coats or hospital scrubs in supplement ads are sure to grab the FTC’s attention.  Third, paid endorsers must be identified as such.  And finally, supplement makers must guard against intentionally or inadvertently creating fake news.

On this last point, it is critical that supplement companies (and any company engaged in internet marketing for that matter) familiarize themselves with the FTC’s December 2015 Native Advertising Guidelines.  These guidelines were developed to advise businesses on how to advertise online without running afoul of the FTC’s prohibition of fake news.  While a business might believe its online advertisement clearly appears as such when a consumer views it and, therefore, is not deceptive, the FTC’s position is that “advertisers cannot use ‘deceptive door openers’ to induce consumers to view advertising content.  Thus, advertisers are responsible for ensuring that native ads are identifiable as advertising before consumers arrive at the main advertising page.”  (Emphasis added.)  This is no easy task — as shown by the Guidelines, themselves — which contain 17 different examples of online advertisements and how each should be treated.  Suffice it to say, native advertising is a hot button issue for the FTC, and enforcement actions against businesses who ignore the Agency’s guidelines are a growth industry for advertising defense lawyers.

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