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Syrup-titious Labeling: District Court Dismisses Class Action False Labeling Claims Because Quaker’s Oatmeal has Maple Syrup Flavoring

Oct 31, 2017 | Topic: Class Actions

Quaker Oats Company (“Quaker”) manufactures several types of oatmeal in various flavors, including “Maple & Brown Sugar.”  In April 2017, six plaintiffs filed a class action lawsuit in the Central District of California accusing Quaker of falsely advertising its Maple & Brown Sugar oatmeal as containing actual maple syrup.  The suit alleged ten causes of action, including violation of California’s Unfair Competition Law, False Advertising Act, and other statutes.  Quaker moved to dismiss the complaint on several grounds, including that federal law preempted the plaintiffs’ claims.

Quaker asserted that the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (“FDCA”) and Nutritional Labeling and Education Act (“NLEA”) preempted the plaintiffs’ claims.  The NLEA includes an express preemption provision that prohibits states from establishing any food labeling requirements that are not identical to the relevant federal regulations.  The plaintiffs argued that the NLEA preemption provision did not apply to their claims because the preemption provision includes an exception for state laws that are “applicable to maple syrup.”  While it is true such an exception does exist for maple syrup products, the Court disagreed with the plaintiffs’ interpretation of the exception and found that it was meant to enable states to “‘set standards for what can be sold as maple syrup,’ not to permit any claim relating to maple syrup.” 

The Court next compared the labeling requirements the plaintiffs sought to impose on Quaker with the requirements of the FDCA.  The plaintiffs took issue with both Quaker’s use of the phrase “Maple & Brown Sugar” and the depiction of a glass pitcher of maple syrup on the packaging.  The Court found that the relevant FDCA regulations and an FDA Consumer Update confirmed that food labels can use terms like “maple,” “maple-flavored,” or “artificially maple-flavored,” without having any maple syrup in the product, as long as the product contains maple flavoring and is labeled as containing “natural” and/or “artificial” flavoring.  Furthermore, the FDCA allows labels to both describe and depict the “characterizing flavor” of the product.

Based on the FDCA, the Court ultimately agreed with Quaker that the plaintiffs’ lawsuit sought to enjoin exactly what federal law expressly permits—food labeling that describes the “‘primary recognizable flavors, by word or vignette,’ even if the product ‘contains no such ingredient.’”  Quaker described the primary recognizable flavor in its oatmeal—maple—by both word and image, and appropriately labeled the oatmeal as being “Naturally and Artificially Flavored.”  The plaintiffs sought to impose labeling requirements that were not identical to the relevant federal regulation, and seven of their claims were therefore preempted.  The remaining causes of action failed for various other reasons, and the Court granted Quaker’s Motion to Dismiss.