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Are State-Law Claims for Violating Federal Food Labeling Law Preempted?

Posted in Class Action Trends, Motions Practice

The federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (“FDCA”)—along with the implementing regulations promulgated by the FDA—sets out a detailed national standard for much of what appears on food and beverage labeling. See 21 U.S.C. §§ 301, et seq.; 21 C.F.R. §§ 101, et seq.; Pom Wonderful LLC v. Coca-Cola Co., 679 F.3d 1170, 1175 (9th Cir. 2012). This national labeling law expressly preempts states from enacting different requirements for labels, including requirements imposed by courts under the guise of redressing a “misleading” or “fraudulent” label. 21 U.S.C. § 343-1; Turek v. Gen. Mills, Inc., 662 F.3d 423, 426 (7th Cir. 2011).

Preemption under the FDCA served as a bulwark against the first wave of false advertising consumer class actions against the food and beverage industry. Most of those complaints essentially attempted to impose state-law labeling requirements that differed from the federal requirements, and courts therefore dismissed the claims as expressly preempted. See, e.g., Turek, supra; Carrea v. Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream, Inc. (pdf), 475 Fed. App’x 113 (9th Cir. 2012).

In response, the plaintiffs’ bar adapted by refocusing class action litigation on labeling statements that they asserted were not covered by a federal requirement. The hundreds of cases challenging “natural” labeling statements are an example. In most respects, FDA has declined to regulate the use of the term “natural” on food and beverage labels, claiming that, “[f]rom a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer a product of the earth.”  No federal requirement, no preemption of the state-law consumer claims, plaintiffs say.

Moreover, in the last 16 months, the plaintiffs’ bar has debuted a new theory that it hopes will allow them to evade preemption. They rely on California’s wholesale incorporation of the FDCA’s labeling law into the law of California. Cal. Health & Safety Code § 110100. Alleged violations of the FDCA are thus transformed into violations of California’s Sherman Food Drug and Cosmetic Law. And violations of the Sherman law, in turn, may be alleged as predicate acts in support of claims for violation of California’s consumer protection laws, including the Unfair Competition Law (a/k/a Section 17200). Plaintiffs argue that because state law imposes identical requirements to the federal requirements (indeed, the same FDCA requirements), liability under state law is not preempted.

But is indirect enforcement of the FDCA via a “state-law delivery device” compatible with Congress’s refusal to create a private right of action for violation of the FDCA? (California’s Sherman Law also does not allow for private enforcement.) Plaintiffs tried and failed to use a similar strategy in the context of medical devices, which are also governed by the FDCA. Specifically, the Supreme Court has held that Section 337 of the FDCA (the exclusive-enforcement provision) impliedly bars suits by private litigants “for noncompliance with” federal law, and that the express-preemption provision of the Medical Device Amendments preempts any state-law claim if the result of the litigation might be to require (or forbid) any conduct not already required (or forbidden) by federal law. Buckman Co. v. Plaintiffs’ Legal Comm., 531 U.S. 341, 349 n.4 (2001); Riegel v. Medtronic, Inc., 552 U.S. 312, 330 (2008). Taken together, the exclusive-enforcement and express-preemption provisions

create a narrow gap through which a plaintiff’s state-law claim must fit if it is to escape express or implied preemption. The plaintiff must be suing for conduct that violates the FDCA (or else his claim is expressly preempted . . .), but the plaintiff must not be suing because the conduct violates the FDCA (such a claim would be impliedly preempted . . .).

Bryant v. Medtronic, Inc. (pdf), 623 F.3d 1200, 1204 (8th Cir. 2010) (emphasis in original).

On our view, Buckman and its progeny bar any state-law claim for which the existence of the federal regulatory scheme is a “critical element.” This implied preemption issue, as applied to food labeling false advertising claims, is currently joined in several pending motions in the Northern District of California. See, e.g., Kane v. Chobani, No. 12-cv-2425 (N.D. Cal), Dkt. No. 97; Trazo v. Nestlé USA, Inc., No. 12-cv-2272 (N.D. Cal.), Dkt. No. 64; Samet v. Procter & Gamble Co., No. 12-cv-1891 (N.D. Cal.), Dkt. Nos. 85, 87; Bruton v. Gerber Prods. Co., No. 12-cv-2412 (N.D. Cal.), Dkt. No. 47.

We expect decisions on these motions in the near future and will blog on the results when decisions are issued.