SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Trader Joe's use of the terms "Organic Soy Milk" and "evaporated cane juice" in its yogurt may have violated food labeling regulations, a federal judge ruled.
U.S. District Judge William Orrick allowed plaintiffs Amy Gitson, Christine Vodicka and Deborah Ross to move forward with claims under the Sherman Law, while he dismissed several others filed against the specialty grocer.
To support their claims, the plaintiffs submitted warning letters to the defendant from the Food and Drug Administration which stated food products should be labeled using their common and usual names.
The letters advise that sweeteners derived from sugar cane syrup should not be called "evaporated cane juice."
Other letters warn that the FDA does not consider soy milk to be an appropriate label since it does not contain milk.
While Orrick agreed with Trader Joe's that the letters are not binding, "it is plausible that Organic Soy Milk is misbranded because it does not contain milk from a cow."
But Orrick also took the plaintiffs to task on their claim that they were deceived by the products' packaging. "The court rejects the argument that the term "soy milk," standing alone, is so well-established that a reasonable consumer, as a matter of law, could not believe that it is some type of cow's milk. Indeed, the FDA warning letters advise against using the term at all.
"But here, the allegedly misleading term is coupled with the explicit disclaimer on the product label that Organic Soy Milk is LACTOSE & DAIRY FREE and is an 'alternative to dairy milk,'" Orrick continued. "It is not plausible to claim, as the plaintiffs do, that a reasonable consumer would believe that Organic Soy Milk is cow's milk and has the same qualities as cow's milk in light of the prominence of the disclaimer on the label."
"This is one of those rare cases where the accused label itself makes it impossible for the plaintiff to prove that a reasonable consumer is likely to be deceived," Orrick added, noting the packaging specifically said the soy milk was not what the plaintiffs believed it was.
Orrick then cited to the famous "Crunch Berries" case, wherein the judge ruled that no reasonable consumer could believe Cap'n Crunch's Crunch Berries cereal was made from real berries, given the image and description on the box.
Orrick also agreed with Trader Joe's that a reasonable consumer would not believe its yogurt did not contain sugar, "given that each product expressly discloses its sugar content."
"In their Opposition, the plaintiffs state that Trader Joe's 'misses the point of Plaintiffs' claim. The issue is not that the product has sugar in it; it's that defendant has added sugar to its product without telling consumers it has done so,' " Orrick continued. 'Trader Joe's is forgiven for misunderstanding the plaintiffs' claim, because the Court has the same confusion. The FAC [First Amended Complaint] alleges that the plaintiffs would not have purchased the products if they had known that they contained sugar. Nowhere does the FAC express any concerns about added sugar. Tellingly, the plaintiffs do not actually cite the FAC for this supposed allegation. The plaintiffs will be given the opportunity to assert this allegation in an amended complaint, but the allegation it has asserted in the FAC fails the reasonable consumer test."
Orrick also dismissed the women's claims for the mislabeling its organic lowfat strawberry yogurt, enchilada sauce and other unspecified products, as they were not pleaded with the necessary particularity.Follow @MariaDinzeo
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