United States: Trying To Make A Food Labeling Claim Stick

Last Updated: December 19 2018
Article by Eric Alexander

Our last post talked about carbohydrate-rich Thanksgiving food. Today, we are talking about a putative class action on the labeling of certain diet foods, particularly in regard to "net carbs" and sugar alcohols. This was not planned. Colella v. Atkins Nutritionals, Inc., No. 17-cv-5867 (KAM), 2018 WL 6437082 (E.D.N.Y. Dec. 7, 2018), on the other hand, has all the hallmarks of a case brought for no reason other than to reward the lawyer. The same lawyer brought multiple cases in multiple courts raising the same allegations. The purported class representative in this one claimed to have bought only three of the thirty-one products he sued over and it is hard to imagine how he sustained any harm, let alone a harm that continues. Two of the other cases produced decisions on similar issues, which the Colella court cited frequently, so this was not really new ground. We will just cite those now and cut back on internal cites later: Fernandez v. Atkins Nutritionals, Inc., No. 3:17-CV-1628, 2018 WL 280028 (S.D. Cal. Jan. 3, 2018); Johnson v. Atkins Nutritionals, Inc., No. 2:16-CV-4213, 2017 WL 6420199 (W.D. Mo. Mar. 29, 2017). That will also be the last of our references to dieting, a subject with which we stubbornly deny knowledge.

Plaintiff centered his consumer fraud and warranty claims on the allegations that sugar alcohols in a number of the defendant's products should count toward any tally of net carbohydrates and their consumption does affect blood sugar levels. Sugar alcohols are used as sweeteners in a number of foods and, as it turns out, FDA has a fairly developed history of addressing them in connection with labeling. Predictably, especially if you have read other posts on lawsuits over food labeling, the defendant's motion to dismiss the amended complaint teed up express preemption under the FDCA and primary jurisdiction, along with TwIqbal and substantive state law. The end result was that plaintiff lost most of his claims, but will get a third chance to plead a consumer fraud claim as to a portion of his apparent issues with the labeling for defendant's products. As we have noted before, we do think it is better to assess whether viable state law claims have been supported by factual pleading (with or without the heightened standard applicable for fraud-based claims like the plaintiff here was asserting) before turning to whether express preemption or primary jurisdiction would apply. The Colella court flipped the order of analysis, so something is left at least for now.

We will follow the court's order of analysis in our discussion after a little more on the claims. The products' labeling, and the company's website, made clear that all counts of "net carbs" excluded sugar alcohol (like they excluded fiber). They further touted the low number of net carbs and explained that sugar alcohols could be ignored because they do not impact blood sugar like other carbohydrates that count toward the net carbs total. Plaintiff claimed this was a misrepresentation of the available science and that sugar alcohol consumption did have an impact on blood sugar. He also claimed FDA agreed that sugar alcohol should be counted toward total carbohydrates (but not net carbs). Lastly, he claimed he had relied on the labeling's statements about net carbs and sugar alcohol in buying three products (once, apparently). Based on this, he wanted a range of damages for a purported class of purchasers of a bunch of products.

The express preemption analysis was fairly thorough and technical, because non-identical state law claims as to nutrient content labeling and health-related claims are expressly preempted but the regulations are complicated on those issues. What was not complicated was the rejection of plaintiff's call to a presumption against preemption. Bexis should be happy with the quotation of Puerto Rico v. Franklin California Tax-Free Tr., 136 S. Ct. 1938, 1946 (2016), for the proposition that where a statute includes an express pre-emption clause, "[the court] do[es] not invoke any presumption against pre-emption but instead 'focus[es] on the plain wording of the clause, which necessarily contains the best evidence of Congress' pre-emptive intent.'" It was also acknowledged that there is express preemption of "state law requirements regarding nutrient content claims" under the FDCA and POM Wonderful. Statutes and regulations require labeling of nutrients in food, including "[t]otal fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, complex carbohydrates, sugars, dietary fiber, and total protein contained in each serving size or other unit of measure." The regs also spell out how sugar alcohols should be handled and we will just repeat what the Colella court wrote:

Relevant to the instant case, "§ 101.9(c)(6) .... requires that food labels include ... a statement of the number of grams of total carbohydrate in a serving, and a statement of the number of grams of total dietary fiber in a serving." Fernandez, 2018 WL 2128450, at *4. Dietary fibers and sugar alcohols are considered carbohydrates for the purpose of calculating "total carbohydrates," and the FDA provides extensive guidance regarding the treatment of sugar alcohols. 21 C.F.R. § 101.9(c)(6)(i)-(iv). Disclosure of sugar alcohols and their weights in the nutrition facts panel of a label is voluntary, however, if a claim is made about the grams of sugar alcohol on the label, disclosure must be made in accordance with 21 C.F.R. § 101.9(c)(6). Section 101.9(c)(6)(iv) states: "[a] statement of the number of grams of sugar alcohols in a serving may be declared voluntarily on the label, except that when a claim is made on the label or in labeling about sugar alcohol or total sugars, or added sugars when sugar alcohols are present in the food, sugar alcohol content shall be declared." 21 C.F.R. § 101.9(c)(6)(iv); see also Fernandez, 2018 WL 2128450, at *4.

Statements about nutrients, however, do not necessarily have express preemption.

Under § 101.13(i)(3), "the label or labeling of a product may contain a statement about the amount or percentage of a nutrient if ... [t]he statement does not in any way implicitly characterize the level of the nutrient in the food and it is not false or misleading in any respect." Thus, "A nutrient content claim governed by § 343(r)(2) is ...any claim outside of the nutrition-facts box that the manufacturer has chosen to make about the same kind of nutrients discussed inside the ... nutrition information box." Id.

With that backdrop, the court came to different conclusions about express preemption as to claims based on simply listing the number of net carbs or explaining how calculated them, on the one hand, and claims based on characterizing the number of net carbs as "Only Xg Net Carbs" and discussing the impact of sugar alcohols on blood sugar, on the other. Much of the analysis related to plaintiff's argument that statements about net carbs cannot be preempted because they are not explicitly mentioned in the regulations. "Plaintiff's argument that Section 343(q) of the NLEA and its implementing regulations, do not specifically list Net Carbs as a nutrient nor require the inclusion of Net Carbs in the Nutrition Facts panel is unavailing. The broad language in Section 343(r)(1) includes claims regarding nutrients, and relationships of nutrients, 'of the type' required by paragraph (q)(1) or (q)(2), obviating the need for specific categorical references to nutrients and nutrient relationships . . . " The court also did not require that the FDA had to have expressly permitted the challenged labeling language. Here, there was ample evidence that FDA considered the language without prohibiting them. Among that evidence was the rejection of a citizen petition on the net carbs description in one of the products, noting "The agency has not generally objected to the use of 'net carbohydrate" type information on food labels if the label adequately explains how the terms are used. If [the] FDA determines that such statements or their explanations are false or misleading, we will take appropriate action." Thus, the court concluded that, "while the FDA may not have considered the exact language addressed ..., it had clearly addressed the substance of the claims at issue."

Statements about the products having "only" a certain number of grams of net carbs and explaining whether sugar alcohols have an effect on blood sugar levels did not have the same record and were not preempted. Implied nutrient claims—the implication of "only" is the net cabs in these products was low—are subject to misbranding unless FDA has set a criteria and it has been met. That has not happened with net carbs yet. As to explaining blood sugar impact, the court did not consider that to be a claim about nutrient content or a health related claim. We get the former, but the explanation of the latter was lacking. At least in the lay sense, saying nutrients in the food do not impact blood sugar does seem like a claim about health.

Getting past preemption did not mean plaintiff was done. Primary jurisdiction was looming. As would be expected, every claim that was preempted was also subject to primary jurisdiction. The net was cast a little broader, though.

Upon consideration of plaintiff's claims and application of the four factors, primary jurisdiction applies with regard to plaintiff's Net Carbs figures and calculations, and the "Only Xg Net Carbs" statements, as "[i]t is clear that it is the FDA's role to decide what calculation methods manufacturers may use, not the courts." Johnson, 2017 WL 6420199, at *9. Primary jurisdiction does not apply to plaintiff's claims as to whether the labeling statements on the impact of sugar alcohols on blood sugar are false or misleading, as that is a factual issue within the traditional real of judicial competency.

Boiling it down, the distinction seemed to be that it is for FDA to determine the criteria for low net carbohydrate food, which is closely related to a number of issues it already decides. While there was not much analysis as to the discussion of blood sugar impact, the court clearly felt that was the sort of thing that it could decide as misleading or not without treading on regulatory toes.

Only after addressing preemption and primary jurisdiction did the court turn to whether New York state law claims for consumer fraud and warranty had been stated on the face of the complaint. Consumer fraud was not and it was not very close. Facts were not asserted that the challenged labeling was deceptive in a material way, which should require extra facts under Fed. R. Civ. P. 9(b). Nor did asserted facts establish any injury. Even with a reduced bar for economic injury from an allegedly over-priced product, "plaintiff only conclusorily asserts that Atkins Nutritionals charges a premium for its products and provides no facts regarding what the premium was, what price he paid for the products, or the price of non-premium products." So, plaintiff did not assert any consumer fraud claim, regardless of what defense might apply.

He also did not have a warranty claim, because New York requires timely notice and that was not alleged. The court declined to adopt an exception to this rule for consumer products. This defect could not be cured with re-pleading. The plaintiff would get a third shot at pleading facts for some consumer fraud claim not subject to express preemption or primary jurisdiction. We have a hard time seeing a claim based solely on sugar alcohols and whether the amounts in these products affect blood sugar levels. Plaintiff can claim this information was material to his decision to buy this manufacturer's Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Bar, Sweet & Salty Trail Mix, and Chocolate Peanut Candies over other items at his local Wal-Mart, but it is hard to imagine facts supporting that convenient assertion.

This article is presented for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute legal advice.

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