Update: Avoiding Costly Mistakes For Your Food Business

In an article I published last fall, the maker of Hellman’s mayonnaise sued Hampton Creek Inc., the maker of Just Mayo, accusing the company of false advertising for calling its eggless spread “mayo”. But due to the negative publicity Unilever received which painted it as a corporate bully, they eventually dropped the suit. However, Hampton Creek’s worries have not disappeared as they are now facing another legal challenge.

Earlier this month, a class-action lawsuit was filed in Florida state court again stating, among other things, that Just Mayo is misleading and therefore “misbranded” in violation of federal law. Unlike the previous suit, these plaintiffs are also asserting that Hampton Creek violated the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act, which have more flexible standards than the federal Latham Act (the act under which the previous suit was filed). Considering many legal experts at the time thought Unilever has a strong case, Hampton Creek could be in a bit of trouble this time around. There is no multi-national corporation to launch a campaign against, only consumers who claim they were misled into thinking Just Mayo’s product was actually mayonnaise. Although I’m sure they are working diligently to come up with a strategy to combat their new foes.

The FDA regulations state that “mayonnaise” must contain at least 65% oil by weight, vinegar, and egg or egg yolks. However, Just Mayo doesn’t include eggs, instead it gets its emulsification from vegan pea protein. Hampton Creek states that it calls its spread “mayo”, not “mayonnaise”, and therefore argues that it doesn’t need to comply with the “mayonnaise” definition.

The plaintiffs’ claim that Just Mayo misleads customers who think they are buying actual mayonnaise, not an egg-free spread. Under Federal law products are “misbranded” if their “labeling is false or misleading in any particular” (see 21 U.S.C. 343). The plaintiffs’ claim, as one of many reasons, Just Mayo is misleading because the label for features an egg with a plant growing over it and it refers to its product as “mayo” and “mayonnaise” in its marketing materials. Again, this is up for the court to decide and so only time will demonstrate whether this argument is a correct interpretation of the law.

Food manufacturers should ensure they thoroughly understand FDA regulations before labeling their products. This is not only to avoid a false advertising lawsuit, but also to avoid misbranding. It’s a prohibited act to distribute misbranded products and manufacturers can be subject to FDA enforcement and/or private party lawsuits. Whether the lawsuit could have been avoided, would be difficult to determine. However, food companies may minimize the chances of their products facing a legal challenge by consulting with an attorney familiar with FDA regulations.

If you need assistance navigating or complying with the laws affecting your food or beverage businesses, please feel free to contact our attorneys at Morsel Law.

The Fight is On: Congress Considers GMO Labeling

On Tuesday, the House Agricultural Committee conducted a hearing aimed at examining the costs and impacts of mandatory GMO labeling laws. If passed, it would create a federal law that would require manufacturers to label all genetically engineered foods and any food products that contain genetically engineered ingredients.

The Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, introduced by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) in the House and by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) in the Senate, would direct the FDA to enforce the new rule. However, some industry groups would rather have a federal solution than a federal mandate. These industry groups, including the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Snack Food Association, seek a federal solution of voluntary labeling that preempts state laws that requiremandatory labeling, claiming that complying with a patchwork of state laws would dramatically increase costs for manufacturers and consumers. Whether this is true or not is up for debate.

In response to the Right-to-Know Act and supported by industry groups, a bipartisan bill was introduced on Wednesday by Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) and Rep G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) that would bar states from requiring the labeling of foods derived from genetically-modified organisms. The proposed legislation would set up, as an alternative, a U.S. labeling program that would certify foods that are free of genetically modified organisms. But the program would be voluntary, and does not require genetically-modified foods to be labeled. Thus, it would preempt state laws requiring mandatory GMO labeling (i.e., Vermont, Maine and Connecticut).

Currently, the FDA currently supports voluntary labeling in which food manufacturers indicate whether their products have or have not been developed through genetic engineering “provided such labeling is truthful and not misleading.” Which, in lay terms, means no federal requirement for GMO labeling exists.

Whatever side you may be on, this is going to be a fight of historic proportions as money continues to pour in from both sides. Stayed tuned for updates as we closely follow these bills while they make their way through the legislative process.

When Does the Court of Public Opinion Count More Than A Court of Law?

Recently, Bell’s Brewery of Kalamazoo, Michigan filed a complaint in federal court against tiny upstart brewer Innovation Brewing of Sylva, North Carolina. Innovation Brewing filed a trademark application for their name and Bell’s claims that if such a trademark was granted it would create confusion in the marketplace since they use two phrases in their advertising: “Inspired Brewing” and “Bottling Innovation Since 1985”. Whether Bell’s is successful or not in this dispute it may not matter as much as how their customers perceive their actions.

The complaint has created a negative social media storm where many fans and customers of both breweries view these actions as contradictory to what makes the craft beer industry so special. The craft brewery revolution is about collaboration not competition. The people who truly care about beer and bring passion to the craft band together to share ideas and their love of quality ales and lagers. But when breweries instead choose to duke it out, who are the real winners and losers? Bell’s, which made more than 310,000 barrels last year in contrast to Innovation which makes only about 500 barrels a year and sells exclusively in North Carolina, is being perceived as a “bully”.

Although Bell’s is one of craft beer’s greatest independent success stories, this isn’t the first time they’ve used courts to settle their affairs. In 2011, Bell’s filed a challenge against a California-based brewer for its Copper Bell beer, but the matter was settled and the brand later withdrawn.

But Bell’s isn’t the only one using legal means to protect their brand. Recently, Lagunitas Brewing sued rival Sierra Nevada Brewing over its Hop Hunter IPA label. However, within a few days after filing the complaint, amid the firestorm reaction from angry customers using social media to voice their disappointment, Lagunitas founder Tony Magee quickly dropped the suit. Currently, New Belgium Brewing Co., the third largest craft brewer in the country, and Oasis Texas Brewing Co., a relatively new upstart, are slugging it out in court over the use of the name “Slow Ride” IPA. Just as in the other disputes above, fans are turning to social media to voice their concerns, but time will only tell the effect it will have on the outcome of this dispute.

Regardless of which brewery is right in the eyes of the law in these types of disputes, it only brings temporary relief. What matters most in the long run is how customers view their actions. In the case of Bell’s, several bar owners have pulled Bell’s from their menus until further notice and several brewing associations have signed petitions voicing their support of Innovation. In the spirit of the industry, it would be nice to see them resolve it amicably. Considering the cost of litigation, which in the case of a trademark defense can be between $40,000-50,000, wouldn’t the money be better spent on expanding their businesses? I hope other craft brewers will learn from these lessons and consider collaboration before litigation.

New York Passes GMO Labeling Bill

On March 3, 2015, the New York State Assembly Committee on Consumer Affairs and Protection voted to pass bill which would require all food made with genetically modified organisms (“GMOs”) to state the presence of GMOs on their label.

The bill would require labeling for raw agricultural commodities, processed foods, seed and seed stock produced with genetic engineering.   Under this proposed law, any food for human consumption, seed or seed stock offered for retail sale in New York is misbranded if it is entirely genetically engineered or partially produced with genetic engineering and that fact is not clearly and conspicuously disclosed on the product’s packaging.  Fines for misbranding are a civil penalty of not more than $1000 per day, per product.

Any person, firm, corporation, or other legal entity may be held responsible for false labels and misrepresentations, but retailers are not subject to penalties unless: (a) the retailer is the manufacturer of the GMO raw agricultural commodity, processed food, seed, or seed stock and sells the GMO product under a brand it owns; or (b) the retailer’s failure to label was knowing and willful.

However, there are various exemptions for misbranding built into the bill.  For example, food consisting entirely of, or derived entirely from, an animal that has not itself been produced with genetic engineering does not need to be labeled as GMO, regardless of whether the animal was fed with any food produced with genetic engineering.

Other exemptions include:  products that were grown, raised, produced, or derived without the knowing and intentional use of GMO seed or food if the manufacturer provides a written statement in support of this lack of knowledge and intent; alcoholic beverages that are subject to regulation by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Law; food that has been lawfully certified to be labeled, marketed, and offered for sale as “organic”; and food that is served, sold, or otherwise provided in any restaurant, food facility, or food retailer that is engaged in the sale of food prepared and intended for immediate human consumption.

This proposed statute bears a striking similarity to the statewide GMO labeling bill rejected by California lawmakers in 2014, with nearly identical definitions and safe harbor exemptions.  Unlike the proposed California law, however, New York would enforce the law through civil penalties issued by the State Department of Agriculture and markets rather than through an injunction sought by the state Attorney General to stop continued violations of the law.  Further, unlike Connecticut and Maine’s GMO-labeling laws, New York’s proposed law does not have a triggering requirement based on when a certain number of states approve related legislation.

If passed, New York’s GMO labeling law would take effect twenty-four months after it becomes law. New York would be the fourth state to approve a GMO-labeling law, which would then trigger Connecticut and Maine’s related laws.  New York’s GMO labeling law, however, will likely face legal challenges similar to the lawsuit filed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association seeking to rescind Vermont’s GMO-labeling statute.

Stay turned for further updates as the bill makes it way through the New York state assembly.