KIND Petitions FDA: Should Investors Lose Confidence in General Counsel?

In a previous article I discussed how important it is for food businesses to conduct an in-depth label review prior to launching new products. Specifically, I addressed the FDA Warning Letter issued to KIND LLC and pointed out how costly labeling mistakes can be, especially when the risk could have easily been mitigated. In their response to FDA, KIND agreed to correct most of the technical errors noted in the letter; however, when it comes to changing their view of what foods are allowed to label themselves as “healthy” they don’t agree with what they refer to as “outdated” regulations.

In a citizen petition letter (“Petition Letter”) sent to FDA last week, KIND’s general counsel, Justin Mervis, notes that under current regulations “whether or not a food can be labeled “healthy” is based on specific nutrient levels in the food rather than its overall nutrition quality.” KIND then goes on to claim that new scientific evidence no longer supports this view and that, accordingly, FDA amend 21 C.F.R. 101.65(d)(2) in regards to nutritional content claims so that manufacturers may use the term “healthy” without regard to the total fat or saturated fat, if the source of such fat comes from fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains or seafood, provided that “such foods are used in their whole form or have been processed in such a way that did not materially degrade their nutritional value.”

While the Petition Letter makes several other recommendations, the majority of the Petition Letter is devoted to the argument that there is a disconnect between the Dietary Guidelines and what claims manufacturers are permitted to state on their labels. KIND argues that manufacturers should be permitted to make claims on their products labels (e.g., “nuts are part of a healthy diet”) that are consistent with federal dietary recommendations and current scientific evidence. As such, KIND goes on to request the FDA “undertake rulemaking to define a “dietary guidance statement” as a statement in food labeling about the usefulness of a food, or a category of foods, in maintaining healthy dietary practices.” The requested rule would permit claims on food labels to communicate that certain foods are useful in creating a diet that is consistent with current dietary recommendations, so long as those claims are not misleading.

While it isn’t a secret that food regulations, in some part, have become “outdated”, what makes KIND’s petition interesting is it comes after being caught violating the same regulations they are petitioning to amend. The real question is whether KIND knew their product labels were non-compliant when released into the marketplace or did they make a business decision to move forward with non-compliant labels in order to promote their “healthy” marketing campaign. While the saying “it’s better to ask for forgiveness then to ask for permission” may apply in certain situations, it’s probably not the best strategy when it comes to breaking federal law.

The role of the general counsel is to advise executive leaders on the state of the law, how certain laws affect their business and to provide pertinent information and/or legal advice to such leaders so they have the ability to make informed decisions. The general counsel is not required to be an expert in the industry in which their client operates (although it certainly helps); however, they should know the limits of their expertise and, when appropriate, bring in outside assistance with such expertise. If they don’t know their limits, or can’t identify potential legal issues outside their expertise, then their departure should be swift. After all what good is legal counsel if leaders are not able to rely on their advice?

It isn’t clear whether KIND made the decision to market their products with non-compliant labels, but if they did the general counsel shouldn’t take the blame. However, it took KIND six months to file their Petition Letter which leads me to believe the labeling violations occurred not because of a strategic business decision, but due to the lack of regulatory expertise and oversight from the general counsel’s office. If my presumption is correct, investors should demand answers and push for changes in the executive suite. These violations have resulted in significant expense revising labels, advertising and websites, in addition to substantial legal fees incurred responding to the Warning Letter and submitting the Petition Letter, and most recently defending consumer lawsuits. While attorneys play a significant role in advising businesses, legal fees cannot be entirely avoided; however, they can be efficiently managed. It is up to KIND’s investors to decide whether their capital in this situation was well-spent.

Growing Craft Beer Industry Through Tax Cuts

While the craft beverage industry has grown significantly over the past decade, it has the potential to grow to new heights if small producers weren’t burdened by federal regulations that have failed to keep pace. This could all change, however, if Congress passes a bill now pending titled the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act (“CBMTA”). If passed, the bill would decrease taxes on craft brewers in order to help small businesses profit and encourage continued growth in the booming sectors. (Note: the CBMTA also cuts federal excise taxes on distillers, vintners and cider makers)

Under current law, a tax is imposed on all beer brewed or produced in, or imported into, the United States. The excise tax rate is $18/barrel (about $0.05 per 12 oz. bottle/can). Brewers that make less than 2,000,000 barrels per year may qualify for a lower excise tax rate on its first 60,000 barrels. If a brewery qualifies for this lower rate, its first 60,000 barrels of beer sold will be taxed at $7/barrel (about $0.02 per 12 oz. bottle/can).

Breweries are required to pay excise taxes semi-monthly (24 payments per year); however, a smaller brewery can qualify for quarterly payments. To qualify for quarterly payments, the estimated annual tax liable for the brewery must not exceed $50,000 (~7143 barrels) and their excise tax for the previous year must not have exceeded $50,000.  It is important to note that paying quarterly taxes may greatly increase the amount of a brewer’s bond.

Under CBMTA, the federal excise tax on the first 60,000 barrels will be reduced to $3.50/barrel for domestic brewers producing less than 2 million barrels annually. It also reduces the federal excise tax to $16/barrel on the first 6 million barrels for all other brewers and importers. The excise tax of $18/barrel would remain for breweries producing more than 6 million barrels annually.

Lowering the excise tax is important to small brewers, the majority of who operate on tight margins. Unlike large multinational brewers who enjoy the benefit of economies of scale, small brewers maintain higher costs for raw materials, production, packaging, marketing and distribution. Adjusting the excise tax would allow small brewers nationwide to reinvest more than $70 million annually into growing their businesses. Passing this bill is crucial to sustain the continued growth of the craft beer industry, so if you’re a craft beer fan please contact your congressional leaders and tell them to support the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act.