California Federal Court Dismisses Trader Joe’s Soy Milk Mislabeling Suit
A California federal court has dismissed a lawsuit against Trader Joe’s Co. alleging the retailer’s soy milk is mislabeled because it does not contain cow’s milk, which the plaintiffs argued amounts to a violation of the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and California’s consumer protection statute. Gitson v. Trader Joe’s Co., No. 13-1333 (N.D. Cal., order entered December 1, 2015).
“Often in food labeling cases,” the court noted, “courts jump straight to the question of whether a plaintiff may state a claim under California’s Unfair Competition Law. But there is a threshold question.” The court explained that questions related to food labeling must be considered in the context of the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act because “if the alleged conduct would not violate the federal statute, it doesn’t matter whether the plaintiff could pursue a state law claim based on that conduct. If a food label does not violate the federal statute, any state law claim arising from that label is automatically preempted, because when it comes to food labels, state law may only impose liability for what the federal statute proscribes.”
Applying that reasoning, the court concluded the plaintiffs failed to show a violation of the federal act in their two arguments. “At one point the plaintiffs seem to suggest the term [“soymilk”] is misleading because people might mistake soymilk for actual milk from a cow, but that is not plausible. The reasonable consumer (indeed, even the least sophisticated consumer) does not think soymilk comes from a cow. To the contrary, people drink soymilk in lieu of cow’s milk.”
In their second argument, plaintiffs asserted that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has standardized the definition of “milk” as a term, and Trader Joe’s soy milk allegedly interferes with that definition. “But the fact that the FDA has standardized milk does not categorically preclude a company from giving any food product a name that includes the word ‘milk,’” the court held. “Rather, as the language of [the federal act] indicates, the standardization of milk simply means that a company cannot pass off a product as ‘milk’ if it does not meet the regulatory definition of milk. Trader Joe’s has not, by calling its products ‘soymilk,’ attempted to pass off those products as the food that the FDA has standardized (that is, milk).” The court dismissed the plaintiffs’ argument that FDA warning letters supported their argument, finding the crux of the letters involved issues of proper storage rather than labeling. Accordingly, the court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims related to soy milk labeling but allowed to continue claims related to chemical preservatives and evaporated cane juice.