Perkins Coie is pleased to present its fourth annual Food Litigation Year in Review 2019, offering a summary of the past year’s key litigation outcomes, regulatory developments, and filing data. Using metrics from our proprietary database, developed by our food litigation team in order to track and understand trends in this area, 2019’s Year in Review again reports an increase in class action litigation, with a record-breaking 173 new lawsuits filed. The upward filing trends in the class action landscape are mirrored in other industries and in the prosecution of related claims: putative class actions against the pet food and dietary supplement industries were on the rise in 2019, as were Proposition 65 warning notices.
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July was a hot month in food litigation. There were twenty-eight new filings, which puts total new food litigation filings at about 100 in 2019.  More than half of the new filings were in California state and federal court, with several new filings in D.C. Superior Court and federal court in Illinois and Florida.

Plaintiffs in several new cases allege that defendant’s foods or beverages contain heavy metals, and defendants had a duty to disclose the presence of those metals to consumers.  In Labajo v. Welch Foods, Inc., 5:19-cv-01306 (C.D. Cal.), for example, the plaintiff alleges that Welch Foods fails to warn individuals that Welch’s White Grape Juice and Concord Grape Juice products expose consumers to heightened levels of heavy metals.  Plaintiffs allege Welch’s has a duty to disclose that the products contain metals independent of any duty imposed by Proposition 65.  Likewise, in Arellano v. Mead Johnson Nutrition Co., 2:19-cv-06462 (C.D. Cal.), plaintiff alleges that testing has found Mead Johnson’s Enfamil Premium infant formula contains high levels of the contaminants arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury, noting that the levels of lead are above the USFDA Provisional Tolerable Intake Level for children six years and under.  
Continue Reading PC Food Litigation Index: July 2019

There were seventeen new cases filed in May, putting total filings for the year at seventy-two. By this time last year, plaintiffs had filed sixty-nine food and beverage cases. Most of the new filings were in California, with a few in New York and one in Missouri. All seventeen of the new cases were false labeling cases.

In a continued expansion of the “sustainability/human rights” cases, several tuna companies were sued in the Northern District of California for allegedly misleading consumers about whether their tuna is dolphin safe. Plaintiffs allege that the tuna suppliers use fishing tactics that can be harmful to dolphins, rendering their “Dolphin Safe” labels misleading under California law and similar laws from all fifty states. These cases evoke similar human rights supply chain cases pursued, largely without success, in the last few years in the Ninth Circuit including the Chipotle GMO supply chain case, Schneider v. Chipotle Mexica Grill, Inc., and the recent Ninth Circuit omissions case, Hodsdon v. Mars.

Other cases of note include DiGregorio v. Kellogg Sales Company, a Northern District of New York case alleging that Kellogg misleadingly marketed high-sugar cereals as healthy. This case mirrors Hadley v. Kellogg Sales Co., which currently pending in the Northern District of California. Plaintiffs in Hadley and DiGregorio make the same claims and are represented by the same plaintiffs’ counsel.
Continue Reading PC Food Litigation Index: May 2019

With fifteen new cases filed in April, total filings on the year are slightly down from last year—there have been sixty-nine total new filings in 2019 compared with seventy-seven by this time last year. Most new filings were in California. Only one new case was filed in New York, down from six last month.

Most of the new cases were false labeling cases, with only one slack fill and two all-natural cases.  Plaintiffs in Shand v. Original New York Seltzer, 19STCV14020 (La. Supp. Ct.), alleged that defendant seltzer beverages are labeled as though they are a product of New York, when the drink is neither bottled in New York nor contains New York water. Shand adds to a recent trend of similar “origin” lawsuits, including several suits last month challenging coffee manufacturers’ characterization of beans as “Kona-style” when they were not grown on the Big Island. Tea beverages were under fire in April. Plaintiffs in several cases alleged that defendants misleadingly labeled their tea products as providing energy from ginseng when the products do not contain detectable amounts of ginseng.

On the natural front, plaintiffs in one case alleged that defendants misleadingly labeled their parmesan cheese product as “all natural” when it contains starch and potassium sorbate. In another, plaintiffs claim defendant misleading labeled its tapenade as “all natural,” even though it contains xanthan gum.
Continue Reading PC Food Litigation Index: April 2019

As we end the first quarter of 2019, we are seeing that the pace of class action filings in the food and beverage industry is consistent with the pace we saw in 2018.  California and New York continue to be hotbeds for activity with New York slightly outpacing California.

Most of the filings in the first quarter were related to general false labeling claims. Several separate cases targeted the “Kona” labels on coffee, claiming that the coffee products at issue do not originate from the Kona District of Hawaii’s Big Island. In addition, the labels of coconut-based products continued to come under attack.  The plaintiffs in several separate lawsuits alleged that the defendants’ coconut milk is misleadingly marketed as healthy, claiming that there are harmful cardiovascular effects associated with the consumption of fat from coconuts. Fruit snacks, a frequent target in this area of health-related claims, are also at the center of a new lawsuit. The plaintiff in Jones v. Welch Foods, Inc. contends that the packaging of defendant’s fruit snacks suggest that they are “nutritious, healthy, satiating and composed of non-synthetic ingredients.”

Among the more novel false fact challenges this month was a class action contesting the claims on A2 Milk Company’s milk, which is touted as “Easier on Digestion” and “Naturally Easy to Digest,” nixing the A1 proteins that “can cause you tummy discomfort.” The plaintiff argues that these claims are scientifically unsubstantiated, and that it is lactose—not A1 proteins—that causes digestive difficulties.

Continue Reading PC Food Litigation Index: March 2019

Perkins Coie is pleased to present its third annual Food Litigation Year in Review, offering a summary of the year’s key litigation outcomes, regulatory developments, and filing data. Last year, pointing to uncertainty at the appellate level, Perkins Coie predicted continued litigation in 2018. Using metrics from our proprietary database, developed by our food

Consumer class action suits continue to target food products that plaintiffs allege don’t actually contain the ingredients highlighted in their labels. For example, in one such false fact case last month, the plaintiff argued that the labels for Panera Bread’s blueberry bagels are misleading; allegedly, the bagels do not contain blueberries at all, only pieces of dyed sugar and flour meant to look like blueberries. (Similar past lawsuits have targeted blueberry-labeled products sold at Dunkin Donuts and Krispy Kreme.)

Another similar false fact action, Lima v. Trader Joe’s, alleges that the name of Trader Joe’s Honey Nut O’s cereal conveys the false impression that the product is primarily sweetened by real honey, even though the plaintiff says it is sweetened mostly by sugar. In Morrison v. Nuts ‘N More, the plaintiff argued that the defendant’s White Chocolate Peanut Spread is unfairly and deceptively marketed, leading consumers to believe that it contains real white chocolate, defined as at least 3.5 percent milk fat. The defendant’s product allegedly “uses non-fat dry milk.”
Continue Reading PC Food Litigation Index: December 2018

Each month we will be sharing the PC Food Litigation Index, a summary of latest class action filings in the food and beverage industry. This data is compiled by Perkins Coie based on a review of dockets from courts nationwide.

November saw a high number of new class action complaints advancing familiar challenges to the “all natural” claims affixed to pasta, ice cream, potato chips and other products. Due to the lack of regulatory guidance around use of the word “natural” on food products, that term continues to be a target for plaintiffs’ suits.

For example, in Rodriguez v. Coolhaus, Inc., the plaintiff claims that several of the defendant’s ice cream products are falsely labeled as “all natural” because they contain allegedly unnatural ingredients like soy lecithin and stabilizers that use dextrose and guar gum.

The popular ingredient malic acid remains at the center of many new “natural” cases. In Lepaine v. UTZ Quality Foods LLC, the plaintiff argues that the defendant’s salt and vinegar potato chips are falsely labeled as flavored only with natural ingredients, because they contain malic acid. Similarly, the plaintiff in Augustine v. Talking Rain takes issue with the “natural” labels on juice products that contain the ingredient. Juice and beverage products are often implicated in these malic acid “natural” suits. Another case filed this month, Anderson v. Outernational Brands Inc., contains substantively similar allegations about a beverage product that is labeled “all natural” and “no artificial color or flavors,” yet contains malic acid.

Plaintiffs are increasingly citing health-related claims on food products as false or misleading, unsupported by scientific evidence. As food manufacturers angle for more health-conscious consumers, their products’ labels are coming under increased scrutiny. For example, coconut oil products have been a frequent target, challenged for labels that describe them as healthy—or at least healthier than other cooking oils such as vegetable oil.

Continue Reading PC Food Litigation Index: November 2018

Each month we will be sharing the PC Food Litigation Index, a summary of latest class action filings in the food and beverage industry. This data is compiled by Perkins Coie based on a review of dockets from courts nationwide.

October 2018 filings continued an upward trend exceeding 2017’s pace.  As in the later months of 2017, October 2018 filings focused on false labeling, slack-fill, and all-natural. Both slack-fill claims filed this month pertained to products in opaque bags—Justin’s mini peanut butter cups and Harvest Snap snack products. Natural claims targeted La Croix sparkling water, Hershey fruit-flavored chocolate, and maple syrup.

White chocolate and pasta sauce were popular targets also. Plaintiffs in Ruiz v. Living Intentions LLC and Rafael v. Starbucks Corp. sued in New York over products that allegedly do not contain white chocolate as defined by the FDA. Plaintiffs in Illinois and California, (Kubilius v. Barilla America, Inc. and Flolo v. Cucina & Amore Inc.) sued claiming that that the defendants’ pasta sauces, which are advertised as containing no preservatives, actually contain citric acid—a chemical both plaintiffs allege constitutes a preservative. Mr. C.K. Lee of the Lee Litigation Group represents all four sets of plaintiffs in the white chocolate cases and the pasta sauce cases.

Continue Reading PC Food Litigation Index: October 2018

Each month we will be sharing the PC Food Litigation Index, a summary of latest class action filings in the food and beverage industry. This data is compiled by Perkins Coie based on a review of dockets from courts nationwide.

September filing activity included several cases challenging the marketing and labeling claims attached to beverage products, with well-known brands like Coca-Cola and Arizona Beverages in plaintiffs lawyers’ sights. Nelson v. Coca-Cola is among the latest in a long string of consumer suits that take issue with “natural” or “all natural” food and beverage labels. The plaintiff in the case contends that a reasonable consumer would take the “natural” label on Hansen’s Natural Sodas to mean that the beverages are “free of any artificial or synthetic ingredients.” She alleges that she would not have purchased the products if she had known that they contain such ingredients. A similar lawsuit, Froio v. Ocean Spray Cranberries, contests the labeling claims on several of the defendant’s juice beverage products, which represent that the products contain no artificial colors or flavors. The plaintiffs alleges that these claims, bolstered by “pictures of water, fields, and fruits pertaining to the specific fruit juice blend in question,” are misleading, because the products do in fact contain artificial ingredients.

Challenges to health-related labeling claims were also particularly high this month, the Neville v. Arizona Beverages case representing this trend. In this case, the plaintiff argues that nutrition facts panel misleads consumers, setting out the sugar and calorie counts for a single serving, even though the standard can actually contains two servings. In another beverage case, Levin v. Stremicks Heritage Foods, the plaintiff argues that while the defendant’s labels “convey to the consumer that these are healthy, natural beverages, brimming with healthful fruit juices,” they are in fact primarily water and high fructose corn syrup. Further, the plaintiff argues that the “excellent source of vitamin C” claim is false, as the “excess sugar” contained in the products “interferes with the body’s metabolism of vitamins.”

Continue Reading PC Food Litigation Index: September 2018