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Judge Clears Trader Joe’s Soymilk Labels

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A federal judge Tuesday dismissed class action claims that Trader Joe's misled consumers by misbranding products without cow's milk as "soymilk."

Lead plaintiff Amy Gitson sued the specialty grocer in March 2013, saying it mislabeled ingredients and failed to disclose artificial flavors and chemical preservatives in its products.

Gitson said Trader Joe's use of "soymilk" violates the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act because it "purports to be" a food standardized by the Food and Drug Administration - dairy milk.

Gitson cited two letters the FDA sent companies after inspections, warning that investigators found "soymilk" products misbranded.

"We do not consider 'soy milk' to be an appropriate common or usual name because it does not contain milk," the letters said.

But U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria ruled Monday that those assertions were insufficient.

"They don't explain how it violates the regulation, which forbids a food from 'purporting to be' a standardized food," Chhabria wrote in a 5-page ruling.

The judge said a regular consumer would not think soymilk contains dairy milk or that it has the same nutritional value as milk.

"It is simply implausible that a reasonable consumer would mistake a product like soymilk or almond milk with dairy milk from a cow," Chhabria wrote.

He dismissed the soymilk claims with prejudice.

Chhabria also granted Trader Joe's motion to strike claims that it failed to disclose that its products were "illegally labeled." But he denied a motion to strike claims that it mislabeled sugar as "evaporated cane juice." The FDA is still working on its position on that term.

On claims of failing to disclose additives, Chhabria said the plaintiffs can proceed only with claims relating to products they did not buy, if the products contained additives found in items they did buy.

"In other words, the litigation will proceed only with respect to the additives the plaintiffs complain about in the purchased products (that is, tocopherols, sodium citrate, and citric acid)," Chhabria wrote.

Products at issue include organic chocolate soy milk, enchilada sauce, dark chocolate peanut butter salted caramel truffles, and three flavors of nonfat yogurt, according to the third amended complaint.

In October 2013, U.S. District Judge William H. Orrick III dismissed with leave to amend claims relating to the purchased products, finding they were not pleaded with particularity.

The plaintiffs were represented by Ben Gore of Pratt & Associates in San Jose.

Trader Joe's was represented by Adam Levine of O'Melveny & Meyers in Los Angeles.

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