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Class Action Lawyers Fight Over Whether “Evaporated Cane Juice” Is Sugar In Disguise

Jun 29, 2017 | Posted by Parada K. Ornelas | Topic: Class Actions

The plaintiff’s bar has been filing false labeling class actions related to products that list “evaporated cane juice” allegedly to avoid listing “sugar” on the label. 

Federal Regulations and FDA Guidance

In 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued its final industry guidance on the use of “evaporated cane juice” on food labels.  The guidance provides that the term should not be used to refer to sweeteners made from sugar cane because such labeling is false or misleading by suggesting that the sweetener is derived from fruit or vegetable juice—when it is “essentially sugar.”  The FDA’s guidance documents, however, do not establish legally enforceable regulations; they should be viewed as recommendations. 

Class Action Against Odwalla

Although the FDA is responsible for monitoring labels on packaged food products in interstate commerce to ensure that they are truthful and not false or misleading, the agency’s resources are limited, and the process to address a violation may take longer than litigation.  As a result, consumers continue to attempt to confront alleged misbranding or mislabeling through proposed class actions.  Consumers in California filed a class action against Odwalla Inc. over the labeling of “evaporated cane juice.”  The lead plaintiff alleged that Odwalla products listed evaporated cane juice as an ingredient, and that they would not have purchased those products had they known it contained sugar.  In addition, the plaintiff argued Odwalla’s labeling practice violated FDA regulations.  The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California had stayed the case for two years pending the FDA’s issuance of its final guidance. 

After the guidance was finalized in 2016, in an attempt to dismiss the case, Odwalla argued that the requirement should not be imposed retroactively, which was rejected by the Court.  Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers found that the final guidance “merely confirmed that [evaporated cane juice] met the definition for sucrose already in federal regulations, and thus, had to abide by the labeling requirements set forth for sucrose.”  She also added that “[i]t would produce perverse results if, any time the FDA issues statements or guidance, such would erase liability for corporations which violated the regulations prior to the issuance of the same.” 

Recently, the plaintiff and Odwalla stipulated to voluntary dismissal with prejudice, which effectively ended the action.  No settlement details or other rationale was provided in the stipulation.  However, based on Odwalla’s case management statement, issues of commonality and predominance may have prevented the plaintiff from getting the class certified. 

New Class Action Against Jelly Belly Candy Co.

A similar lawsuit was recently filed, in May 2017, against Jelly Belly Candy Company, the maker of jellybeans in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.  The complaint alleges that Jelly Belly’s advertisement for its “Sport Beans” products are deceiving because it lists “evaporate cane juice” as an ingredient instead of sugar in order “to make the product appear [sic] more appropriate for athletes and less like a candy.”  Jelly Belly argues that consumers of Sport Beans are athletes who have more knowledge than an average person does about nutrition and labeling.  Jelly Belly has filed a motion to dismiss the complaint. 

Since the case against Odwalla was resolved outside of the court, it remains to be seen if and how the food fight over “evaporated cane juice” will continue against Jelly Belly and other companies.