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Saturday, December 9, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Saturday, December 9, 2023 | Back issues
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Conagra Class Action Isn’t Barred by Federal Law

(CN) - A class action accusing Conagra Foods of false labeling survived a motion to dismiss because the plaintiffs' state law claims are not pre-empted by federal law.

Margot Lockwood sued Conagra Foods Inc. claiming the company's "Healthy Choice" pasta sauce is falsely labeled as being "all natural" when the sauce actually contains high fructose corn syrup. Conagra moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the state law unfair competition claims are expressly pre-empted by the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) and impliedly preempted by the Food and Drug Administration regulations under the Federal Food, Drug Cosmetic Act (FDCA).

Judge Charles Breyer of the Northern District denied the motion.

"The court's inquiry into the scope of a statute's pre-emptive effect is guided by the rule that the purpose of Congress is the ultimate touchstone in every pre-emption case. Defendant argues that food labeling is not a field traditionally occupied by the states.

"Defendant first asserts that plaintiffs' claims are preempted by the express pre-emption provisions added by the NLEA. Section 343(k) [of the NLEA] provides that food is misbranded 'if it bears or contains any artificial flavoring, artificial coloring, or chemical preservative, unless it bears label stating that fact.' Thus, states may impose labeling requirements for artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives only if such requirements are identical to those imposed by the FDCA; any differences are pre-empted.

"This provision does not apply to plaintiffs' complaint as currently pled. Plaintiffs do not allege that defendant's pasta sauce contains artificial flavoring, coloring, or a chemical preservative; rather, they allege that the high fructose corn syrup is not produced by a natural process and therefore the pasta sauce is not 'all natural.'

"On defendant's motion to dismiss the court cannot conclude that plaintiffs' claims are pre-empted.

"The court also cannot conclude that plaintiffs' claims as currently pled are expressly pre-empted by Section 343-1(a)(2). That provision prohibits a state from establishing any requirement for the labeling of food that is required by 21 U.S.C. § 343(c), unless such requirement is identical to the federal requirement. Section 343(c) in turn deems a food misbranded if it is an imitation of another food but does not identify itself as an imitation.

"Plaintiffs are not alleging that the pasta sauce is an imitation of some other food; rather, they allege that it is not 'all natural' because it is made with high fructose corn syrup.

"Next, defendant argues that even if not expressly pre-empted, plaintiffs' claims are impliedly pre-empted because Congress intended the federal government to occupy the field of food and beverage labeling. Defendant urges the court to find field preemption based on the FDA's enactment of a panoply of regulations governing the labeling of food and beverages. The court is not persuaded.

"Defendant's assertion that Congress intended to occupy the field of food and beverage labeling is belied by the NLEA. That act amended the FDCA to include an express preemption provision that allows state regulations that are identical to federal law.

"Thus, the FDCA as amended by the NLEA contemplates state regulation and enforcement along with federal regulation. Moreover, an express definition of the pre-emptive reach of a statute implies - i.e., supports a reasonable inference - that Congress did not intend to pre-empt other matters.

"Here, the intent not to impliedly preempt does not need to be inferred because the pre-emption provisions added to the FDCA by the NLEA include an express savings clause that disavows any implied pre-emption. Thus, Congress has explicitly stated that it does not intend to occupy the field of food and beverage nutritional labeling; instead, it permits states to regulate subject matters covered by the NLEA and its regulations provided that such state laws do not fall within the FDCA's express pre-emption provisions.

"The FDA's policy about the use of the word 'natural' in a food label also suggests an intent not to occupy the field. Under the policy, the agency has considered 'natural' to mean merely that nothing artificial or synthetic is include in, or has been added to, the product that would not normally be there. Although the FDA [has acknowledged] that consumers are being misled by the use of the term 'natural,' it has declined to adopt any regulations governing this term. This inaction is consistent with an intent not to occupy the field.

"This is especially so given that at the time the FDA declined to formally define 'natural' it was aware of and had reviewed state regulation of the use of term, yet it made no mention of the need for uniformity or a preemptive federal regulation.

"For the reasons explained above, defendant's motion to dismiss is denied."

Plaintiff is represented by Ronald Brent Laba out of Vista. Defendant is represented by Michael Fazio at Quinn Emanuel.

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