Guest Commentary

By Kate Murphy, a 2012 Judge K.K. Legett Fellow at the Washington Legal Foundation and a student at Texas Tech School of Law.

When FDA regulations explicitly permit manufacturers to use images and names of fruits to characterize food product flavors, and admonish against suggesting that a natural vitamin is superior to an added or synthetic vitamin, is it ridiculous to sue a company for a label that says “all natural with vitamins”? The Central District of California thought so when it heard Hairston v. South Beach Beverage Co., No. CV 12-1429-JFW (DTBX)., 2012 WL 1893818 (C.D. Cal. May 18, 2012). In Hairston, the plaintiff sued SoBe, a company that manufactures 0 Calorie Lifewater Beverages, alleging that the “all natural” label on 0 Calorie Lifewater is deceptive because (1) the product contains synthetic vitamins; (2) various fruit names are used to describe the different flavors, though the product contains no actual fruit; and (3) the label uses common vitamin names, though the product contains synthetic vitamins.

SoBe argued, and the court agreed, that the plaintiff’s claims were preempted by the federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act and by the specific labeling regulations of the FDA. The court held that a single out-of-context phrase, like “all natural,” cannot reasonably be considered misleading, especially if any existing ambiguity is clarified by the detailed information in the ingredient list. The court further emphasized that allowing the plaintiff’s argument to prevail would “undermine the purpose of the federal labeling standards which includes avoiding a patchwork of different state standards” and dismissed the case without leave to amend.

Unfortunately, not all of California’s federal courts are on the same page as the Central District. For instance, in Lam v. Gen. Mills, Inc., No. 11-2026-SC, 2012 WL 1656731, ___ F. Supp. 2d. ___ (N.D. Cal. May 10, 2012), the court held that the statement “made with real fruit” on Fruit Roll-Ups and Fruit by the Foot labels is actionable. Given the disparity between the decisions coming out of the district courts, the Central District’s hope that businesses won’t be subjected to a patchwork of different labeling standards may be in vain. The Ninth Circuit needs to step in and recognize, like the Central District, that individual courts should not be legislating what is or is not “all natural.”  The legislature is the proper body to clarify issues regarding deceptive labeling, and, in the meantime, courts should defer to existing regulations.