California Appeals Court Places Hold on Food Labeling Lawsuits

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

Mar 24, 2016

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (in San Francisco) issued a decision today (March 24) that places an indefinite hold on a large number of class-action lawsuits filed against food manufacturers whose products allegedly bear misleading labels.

Although the decision to stay proceedings technically applies only to the case at hand – Kane v. Chobani Inc. – it's highly likely to result in similar stays being issued in the scores of similar lawsuits pending in courts within the Ninth Circuit, says the Washington Legal Foundation (WLF), which filed a brief in the case in support of food manufacturers. And it's all predicated on the FDA addressing the issue of what "natural" on a food label means.

Chobani is alleged to have violated California law by including an “only natural ingredients” label on its yogurt, even though the yogurt included color additives that allegedly did not qualify as “natural.” The plaintiffs also allege that the ingredients list misled them because it should have used the term “dried cane syrup” instead of “evaporated cane juice” to more accurately describe the sugars added to the yogurt, says WLF.

The Ninth Circuit Court acknowledged that FDA is currently taking comments on and otherwise considering those label terms, and that agency bears primary responsibility for establishing rules governing food labels. So the Ninth Circuit stayed court proceedings until after FDA completes its review. Scores of cases pending within the Ninth Circuit challenge the use of the word “natural” on food labels, says WLF.

“This decision ought to help stem the deluge of food mislabeling claims being filed by plaintiffs’ lawyers under California’s Unfair Competition Law," says Richard Samp, WLF chief counsel. "In virtually all of the pending food labeling suits, including this one, there is no evidence that plaintiffs were injured by the supposed mislabeling they allege. Voters amended the UCL precisely because they wanted to prevent abusive suits filed by individuals uninjured by the business practices to which they object.”

WLF is a public interest law firm and policy center that regularly litigates in support of civil justice reform, to ensure that unwarranted lawsuits do not drive up costs for all consumers.

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