puffery

The New Naturals

** Where are Class Action Claims Against Consumer Food and Personal Product Companies Trending in 2016?**                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        PrintWe have blogged in the past about some of the “usual suspects” in the consumer class action line-up – particularly for food, beverage, cosmetics and related industries – for example, the “all-natural” case – the “evaporated cane juice” case – and the “handmade” or “craft beer” case.   Trends come and go – as Plaintiffs run out of companies to sue and as companies change their labeling and advertising in response to the litigation risks.

Which begs the question:  Where are the current litigation trends leading?  We have surveyed recent filings to identify some of the tropes and traps that plaintiffs lawyers are currently focusing on:

As we have discussed in the past, the attractiveness of the all-natural class claim lies in the gaps between FDA guidance and labeling law and the vagaries of the reasonable consumer standardThat gap may be closing with the FDA taking comments and perhaps looking to expand its policy on “natural” foods.  As the term “Natural” loses some of its vagueness, the term “healthy” appears to be taking its place – particularly in so far as the term has the required “eye of the beholder” quality necessary to support class action claims (although in some respects the term “healthy” is regulated see e.g.,  21 CFR 101.65(d)(2)) .  For example in  Kaufman v. CVS Caremark Corp., No. 16-1199, 2016 WL 4608131, at *1 (1st Cir. Sept. 6, 2016) (reversing district court dismissal on Rule 12), CVS Pharmacy, Inc. was sued for its Vitamin E dietary supplement because its label touts the product as supporting “heart health.”  Plaintiff argues that this is misleading because the medical literature does not support a link between consuming vitamin E and cardiovascular health.  Kaufman v. CVS Caremark Corp., No. CV 14-216-ML, 2016 WL 347324, at *1 (D.R.I. Dkt. No. 1 at 7) (and in some studies cited by Plaintiff – Vitamin E dosage increases the rate of heart failure).  In Hunter v. Nature’s Way Prod., LLC, No. 16CV532-WQH-BLM, 2016 WL 4262188, at *1 (S.D. Cal. Aug. 12, 2016) (denying motion to dismiss), Plaintiff alleges that Nature’s Way’s coconut oil is advertised with various health claims (such as its “Variety of Healthy Uses”, “ideal for exercise & weight loss programs”, “fuel a[] healthy lifestyle”), but according to Plaintiff, coconut oil products are not “healthy” . . . “but rather their consumption causes increased risk of CHD, stroke, and other morbidity.” (Dkt. No. 1-5 Compl. at ¶ 118).  In Campbell v. Campbell Soup Co., No 3:16-cv-01005 (S.D. Cal. August 8, 2016) (Dkt 18) (Def. Mot. to Dismiss), Campbell’s Soup Co is defending against Plaintiff’s claims that its Healthy Request® soups are not “healthy” because they contains partially hydrogenated oil (PHO).  Notably, Campbell’s soups are somewhat unique from other food labelling cases because they contain more than 2% meat or poultry and therefore are USDA regulated (see 21 U.S.C. § 451, et seq.) and their labelling is pre-approved (see 21 U.S.C. § 457; accord 21 U.S.C. § 607).  Campbell’s has doubled-down on that argument – moving for Rule 11 sanctions.  No 3:16-cv-01005 (S.D. Cal. August 29, 2016) (Dkt 18).  In Lanovaz v. Twinings N. Am., Inc., No. 5:12-CV-02646-RMW (N.D. Cal. September 6, 2016) (dismissing remaining claims), Twinings successfully defended against claims that the labeling of its tea as a “healthy tea drinking experience” and having “antioxidant” benefits were misleading.  In particular Plaintiff claimed that Twinings’ health benefits could not be substantiated and  were contrary to FDA regulations.  No. 5:12-CV-02646-RMW (N.D. Cal. Dkt. Nos. 1, 24).  It appears that “Healthy” is the new “Natural.”

Plaintiff’s lawyers are also taking a close look at ingredients – to determine if touted anchor ingredients are prominent enough.  For example in Coe v. Gen. Mills, Inc., No. 15-CV-05112-TEH, 2016 WL 4208287, at *1 (N.D. Cal. Aug. 10, 2016) (Order denying Mot. to Dismiss), Plaintiffs argued (successfully at the pleading stage) that General MillsCheerios Protein product labeling is misleading because it implies that the product is essentially the same as normal Cheerios but with added protein.  While Plaintiffs acknowledge that Cheerios Protein does have more protein than regular Cheerios (Plaintiffs calculate that 200 calories of Cheerios contains 6 grams of protein, whereas 200 grams of Cheerios Protein contains 6.4 or 6.7 grams of protein), they argue that this smidgen of an increase is so immaterial as to be misleading.  In another example, in Nazari v. Gen. Mills, Inc., No. 2:16-cv-02015 (E.D. Cal. Aug. 23, 2016), the Plaintiff sued Target with a proposed class action alleging the retailer’s up & up™ Green Aloe Vera Gel lacks traces of Aloe Vera.  Plaintiff alleges that while the product is labelled as an “aloe vera gel” with “pure aloe vera,” its laboratory testing (which it contends would have revealed acemannan, the key compound in aloe vera) could detect no active aloe ingredient.  In another example, in Torrent v. Thierry Oliver., No. 2:15-cv-02511 (C.D. Cal. Sept. 2, 2016) (denying motion to dismiss), Plaintiff survived dismissal on claims that Natierra brand Himalania Goji berries are misleadingly labeled because they are not berries from the Himalayan mountain region in China – which was inferred by the “Himalania” brand name.  In labelling, as in everything else, attention to detail counts.

We will update you on these trends as they progress.

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Safe Harbor for Vodka

**District Court Applies Federal Alcohol Administration Act to State Consumer Law Safe Harbor to Dismiss “Handmade” False Advertising Claims Against Vodka Maker in Florida** . . .                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

Recently there has been a raft of purported class actions targeting beer and spirits makers.  See prior post.  Generally, defendants have been successful on motions to dismiss on their argument that puffery such as “handmade” or “craft” are not actionable terms.  Defendants generally have not been successful in asserting an absolute defense based on state law safe harbors.  The safe harbor defense is not complicated –  a state consumer law action cannot be asserted against labels authorized by federal law – and in that alcohol labels must be approved by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), then alcohol makers have an absolute defense.  Courts have been reticent to accept this argument at the pleading stage.  In a recent Florida district court case, common sense on this point has prevailed.  In Pye v. Fifth Generation, Inc., No. 4:14CV493-RH/CAS, 2015 WL 5634600, at *1 (N.D. Fla. Sept. 23, 2015), defendants – the makers of Tito’s Handmade Vodka – were sued (inter alia) under Florida’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act, Florida Statutes§§ 501.201-501.213 (DUTPA) on the allegation that “handmade” and “old fashioned” claims were misleading.  DUPTA includes a safe-harbor provision: it “does not apply to … an act or practice required or specifically permitted by federal or state law.” § 501.212(1).  The safe harbor has been successfully used by pharmaceutical companies (i.e. whose products are heavily regulated by the FDA) in relation to their labeling.  See, e.g., State of Fla., Office of Atty. Gen., Dept. of Legal Affairs v. Tenet Healthcare Corp., 420 F. Supp. 2d 1288, 1310 (S.D. Fla. 2005); Prohias v. AstraZeneca Pharm., L.P., 958 So. 2d 1054, 1056 (Fla. 3d DCA 2007).  The Federal Alcohol Administration Act (FAA) regulates the distribution of distilled spirits, including labeling and packaging. See 27 U.S.C. § 205(e); 27 C.F.R. § 5.42(a).  The TTB enforces these provisions in a number of ways, chiefly through requiring alcohol labels to have a valid Certificate of Label Approval (“COLA”).  Before issuing a COLA, the TTB evaluates and preapproves the alcohol label to ensure it contains all mandatory information and contains no prohibited or misleading information.  The court noted in Pye that the TTB had expressly approved Defendant’s label and, therefore, it was specifically permitted by federal law within the meaning of Florida Statutes (§ 501.212.)  On that basis, plaintiff’s Florida consumer protection claims were dismissed with prejudice.

 

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Craft, Draft or Daft?

 

**Plaintiffs’ Lawyers Failing to Get Traction in Craft Beer and Spirit False Advertising Claims That “Handmade” or “Craft” is a Misleading Term in the Context of Alcohol Labels ** . . .                                                                                                                                                                             

Plaintiff lawyers have recently set their site on beer and spirits manufacturers claiming that terms used in advertising such as “handcrafted”, “handmade” or the imprimatur of “craft beer” are being used misleadingly by mass producers.  Several defendants have been successful to date in having the cases dismissed on the pleadings.  In Nowrouzi v. Maker’s Mark Distillery, Inc., No. 14CV2885 JAH NHS, 2015 WL 4523551, at *1 (S.D. Cal. July 27, 2015), plaintiffs allege that they purchased Maker’s Mark Bourbon because its label contained the statement that it was “handmade,” which allegedly led plaintiffs to believe the spirit “was of superior quality” than other bourbon (thus justifying spending more for defendant’s product than other bourbons).  Unsurprisingly, Maker’s Mark bourbon is made with machines.  In a similar action (bought by the same Plaintiff firm) In Welk v. Beam Suntory Imp. Co., No. 15CV328-LAB JMA, 2015 WL 5022527, at *1 (S.D. Cal. Aug. 21, 2015). plaintiffs allege they were misled by the word “handcrafted” on Jim Beam Bourbon bottle labels.  In each case plaintiffs sued under the usual tripartite in California: the CLRA (Cal. Civ. Code § 1750 et seq.); FAL (Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 17500 et seq.; and UCL (Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 17200 et seq.).  In both cases the district court dismissed with prejudice finding that the use of the impugned terms “handmade” and “handcrafted” were non-actionable puffery.  Those terms were generalized, vague, statements and it was unreasonable to imbue in them that the product literally was created by hand without any involvement of equipment or automated process.  This reasoning follows a Florida case with respect to Jim Beam where the court dismissing with prejudice held that “no reasonable person would understand ‘handmade’ in this context to mean literally by hand. No reasonable person would understand ‘handmade’ in this context to mean substantial equipment was not used.”  Salters v. Beam Suntory, Inc., 2015 WL 2124939 (N.D.Fla. May 1, 2015).

That said, not all Defendants have been so lucky – a few plaintiffs have navigated their way out of the pleading stage.  In Aliano v. Louisville Distilling Co., LLC, No. 15 C 00794, 2015 WL 4429202 (N.D. Ill. July 20, 2015), plaintiffs argued that Angel’s Envy Rye Whiskey, which is described in advertising as “hand crafted” and “small batch” was mass-produced and thus deceptive.  The court permitted the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Trade Practices Act case to proceed.  It distinguished Salters noting that Angel’s Envy was a much smaller brand and a consumer could reasonably believe the phrase “hand crafted” on the finished whiskey label meant it was not mass-produced.  In Hofmann v. Fifth Generation, Inc., No. 14-CV-2569 JM JLB, 2015 WL 5440330, at *8 (S.D. Cal. Mar. 18, 2015), the court deferred on this same question refusing to dismiss the complaint against the makers of Tito’s Handmade Vodka, stating that as a matter of law it could not make the determination that the reasonable consumer would not be misled.

A couple of similar cases in this area are currently pending.  In Parent v. MillerCoors LLC., No. 15-cv-01204-GPC-WVG (S.D. Cal.), MillerCoors is being sued on an allegation that its Blue Moon beer misleads consumers into believing it is a “microbrew” or “craft” beer” by using those terms in its advertising and by withholding the name “MillerCoors” from its label.  Plaintiff claims that the definition of “craft beer” set forth by the Brewer’s Association, a not-for-profit trade association, governs.  While it is undisputed that MillerCoors does not qualify as a “Craft Brewer” pursuant to those guidelines, Miller has moved to dismiss on the basis that such guidelines are not controlling.  Miller has also moved on the basis that the use of the words “craft” and “crafted” in their advertising are colorful and vague – i.e. mere puffery – and not actionable.

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