VEGGIE Doesn’t Mean “Made of Vegetables,” California Judge Rules

In a somewhat surprising ruling, a judge in the Northern District of California last week dismissed with prejudice a false advertising case about certain MorningStar Farms products such as VEGGIE BURGERS, VEGGIE DOGS, AND VEGGIE CHIK’N.  Kennard v. Kellogg Sales Co., No. 21-cv-07211 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 14, 2022), Dkt. No. 46.

The plaintiff alleged that naming the products “VEGGIE” leads reasonable consumers to believe that the products are made primarily of vegetables.  Id. at 2.  Because the products are actually composed primarily of non-vegetable ingredients like wheat gluten, oil, and corn syrup solids, the plaintiff alleged that the packaging is false or misleading in violation of, among other things, California’s False Advertising Law (“FAL”), Unfair Competition Law (“UCL”), and Consumer Legal Remedies Act (“CLRA”).  Id. at 1-2.  The FAL, UCL, and CLRA are very common vehicles utilized by California plaintiffs to bring lawsuits over statements they believe are false or misleading (a defendant can be liable even if its statements are technically true if they are misleading).

The defendant argued that the VEGGIE labels were not misleading because reasonable consumers understand the term VEGGIE to refer to vegetarian or meat substitute foods, not a reference to being made primarily of vegetables.  Id. at 2, 5.

The Court previously dismissed the complaint once, agreeing with the defendant that reasonable consumers would not understand VEGGIE to mean made primarily from vegetables.  He gave the plaintiff another chance to re-plead her case, however, to add facts showing why a significant portion of the public acting reasonably could be misled into thinking that the products were made from vegetables as opposed to grains, legumes, and oil.  Id. at 2-3.

In the Amended Complaint, the plaintiff bolstered her allegations about consumer understanding with a survey that the she said demonstrated that consumers are misled by VEGGIE labeling, thinking that the products are made primarily from vegetables rather than non-vegetable plant-based ingredients.  Id. at 3.  The Court was not swayed, finding that the claims in the Amended Complaint were “implausible and do not support a reasonable inference that some significant portion of consumers would be misled into thinking the VEGGIE products are made primarily from vegetables as opposed to being vegetarian meat substitutes made from grains, oils, legumes, or other ingredients,” and dismissed the complaint again, this time with prejudice.  Id. at 6, 14-15.

What makes this decision surprising is that the Court ruled definitively for the defendant at the motion to dismiss stage.  At that stage, which usually happens early in a case before the actual facts are known, the Court is required to assume the truth of all well-pleaded factual allegations.  How reasonable consumers interpret a label usually is a factual issue, not a legal one.  Here, however, the plaintiff commissioned a survey prior to amending her complaint and even incorporated the survey findings into her complaint (which the Court had to accept as true when ruling on the motion to dismiss).  One might have thought this would make the case particularly difficult to dispose of on a motion to dismiss.

So how did it happen?  First, the Court said the label “VEGGIE” was not misleading because consumers could look for context clues.  Even if the term VEGGIE was ambiguous, said the Court, consumers could look at the ingredient list on the packaging and therefore would not be misled.  Id. at 6-7, 10.  Second, the Court found that the plaintiff’s survey did not ask the right question.  Id. at 10.  The survey asked what plant-based ingredients consumers believed were primarily in the product, when it should have asked whether the term VEGGIE, taking into account the product packaging, “conveyed that the Veggie Products were meat-alternative or … were made with vegetables as opposed to other ingredients.”  Id. at 10.  The Court bolstered that opinion by citing to other cases where courts had determined that surveys cannot save “otherwise facially implausible consumer deception claims.”  Id. at 9.

What can we take from this decision?  First, both the defendant and the Court noted that it is rare for courts to decide as a matter of law that a reasonable consumer would not be deceived by a defendant’s packaging or marketing.  Id. at 2, 5.  Second, while it may be rare, it is not unprecedented.  This decision made sure to cite as support for its position other cases holding that advertising was not misleading as a matter of law, many of which are very recent.  Cases like these might be indicators that California federal courts are pushing back a bit against the wave of non-meritorious false/misleading advertising cases brought by plaintiffs under the UCL/CLRA/FAL.  Look for these cases to be cited by future defendants when moving to dismiss false advertising-type cases.

100% Natural Case 100% Dismissed: You Can’t Have a False Advertising Case Without Advertising

A federal judge in the Northern District of California recently dismissed a false advertising case brought by two non-profit groups, finding that their own testimony sunk their claims.

The two plaintiffs, the Center for Food Safety and Friends of the Earth, sued Sanderson Farms Inc. (“Sanderson”), alleging that Sanderson’s advertisements of its chicken as “100 percent natural” was misleading in violation of California’s Unfair Competition Law (“UCL”) and False Advertising Law (“FAL”). The organizations alleged that reasonable consumers would interpret the statement “100 percent natural” to mean that the chicken was raised without any antibiotics ever, whereas Sanderson’s chicken products are raised with antibiotics, but such antibiotics have cleared prior to sale. In December 2018, the judge denied Sanderson’s motion to dismiss, finding that the organizations had adequately alleged violations of the UCL and FAL. The case then proceeded into discovery.

On July 31, 2019, however, the judge granted Sanderson’s new motion to dismiss, holding that the organizations lacked standing to bring the case. Friends of the Earth, et al. v. Sanderson Farms, Inc., No. 3:17-cv-03592-RS (N.D. Cal. July 31, 2019) (ECF 221). While the organizations alleged in their complaint that they had diverted resources to combat Sanderson’s allegedly misleading advertising, the evidence produced in discovery revealed that to be false. The judge found that the activities the organizations undertook were related to antibiotic use generally, and were not in reaction to Sanderson’s advertising. “Perhaps most damaging,” the judge found, were the organizations’ own depositions, in which they admitted “they did not divert resources because of Sanderson’s advertising” and stated that “they would have undertaken the same advocacy activities—including advocating against the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture and discouraging consumers from purchasing meat raised with routine antibiotics—even if Sanderson had never aired the challenged advertisements,” and that “they would have encouraged Sanderson’s customers to avoid Sanderson and other products that used routine antibiotics regardless of the existence of the advertising.” Id. at 5-6. In other words, the organizations’ real issue was with Sanderson’s practices, not its advertising. But, as the judge found, “This is a false advertising case, and Plaintiffs must establish that their alleged injury is traceable to the challenged ads at issue.” Id. at 6. Because the organizations fatally undercut their own claim that any “injury” they had was caused by Sanderson’s advertising, the judge dismissed their case.

This case is a good reminder of two points for companies who might find themselves on the defense side of a federal case brought by an advocacy group—

First, for a plaintiff to have a successful case, not only must they have a substantive claim (here, alleged violation of false advertising statutes), but they also must have a valid theory of standing. In federal court, to have standing a plaintiff must have an injury that is caused by the action of the defendant and redressable by a favorable ruling. See Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560-61 (1992). For cases involving individual plaintiffs, standing theories can often be straightforward (e.g., “I sustained a physical injury when the defendant ran the red light and hit me” or “I spent money on this product that was falsely advertised that I wouldn’t have spent if it was truthfully advertised”). When organizations decide to become plaintiffs, they often have to use other standing theories. Some common theories: informational injury standing (a statute requires that the organization be provided certain information that was withheld). See, e.g., Federal Election Commission v. Akins, 524 U.S. 11 (1998)); organizational injury standing (defendant’s conduct frustrates the organization’s mission and caused it to divert resources away from programmatic activities towards combatting the defendant’s conduct). See, e.g., La Asociacion de Trabajadores de Lake Forest v. City of Lake Forest, 624 F.3d 1083 (9th Cir. 2010)); and associational standing (at least one of the organization’s members has standing to sue in their own right; the interests at stake are germane to the organization’s purpose, and neither the claim asserted nor the relief requested requires the participation of individual members). See, e.g., Friends of the Earth v. Laidlaw Envtl. Servs., (TOC), Inc., 528 U.S. 167 (2000).

It is important for defendants to think not just about how to defend themselves on the substance/merits of the claims in a lawsuit, but also to think about whether the person/entity bringing the lawsuit actually has the right to do so. If the plaintiff does not have standing, the case should be dismissed regardless of the strength of the underlying claim. In the Sanderson case, the judge previously found that the plaintiff organizations had adequately alleged their substantive UCL and FAL claims, but ultimately dismissed the entire case because the organizations could not establish the organizational injury standing they pled—they could not show that they had diverted organizational resources as a result of the alleged false advertising.

Second, a defendant can raise a plaintiff’s lack of standing at any point in the case. Defendants often want to bring such a challenge in a motion to dismiss at the beginning of a case before expending resources on discovery. However, on a motion to dismiss, the judge is required to assume that the allegations in the complaint are true. For example, if an organizational plaintiff alleges that it diverted funds from one of its activities to combatting a defendant’s false advertising, the judge must assume that is true, making it difficult for a defendant to succeed in getting a well-pleaded case dismissed for lack of standing at the motion to dismiss stage. However, defendants should take heart that if forced to go into discovery on the merits, they should take the opportunity to get discovery on the plaintiff’s standing theory. The deposition testimony given by the plaintiffs in the Sanderson case is ultimately what led to their demise and the dismissal of the case. Defendants should remember that even if they fail at getting a case dismissed for lack of standing early in the case, that they should try, try again. The burden to prove standing is on the plaintiffs throughout a case, and the bar for what they must demonstrate gets raised at each stage. Adequately alleging standing is not the same thing as proving it. Sometimes, as in the Sanderson case, discovery can reveal that it is a plaintiff’s standing theory (not the defendant’s advertising) that is false.

On the Road with Duane Morris’ Animal Lawyers

We’re hitting the road to attend exciting industry conferences that focus on animal businesses and organizations.  If you are attending, please look us up!

On September 24 through 26, Duane Morris animal law attorneys Michelle Pardo and Rebecca Bazan will be attending the Association of Zoos & Aquariums’ Annual Conference in Seattle, Washington. We are looking forward to attending the Icebreaker event at the Seattle Aquarium and a host of informative animal-related sessions.

On October 18, Duane Morris Partner Michelle Pardo will be speaking at the North American Meat Institute’s Animal Care and Handling Conference in Kansas City, MO. The Animal Care and Handling Conference for the Food Industry is the leading animal welfare educational opportunity for meat companies, their customers and those involved in the production and management of livestock and meat products. This important conference has doubled in size since it was launched in 1999 – testament to the increasing significance of animal care and handling in the meat industry.

A Bipartisan Challenge to Animal Experimentation

An advocacy group called the White Coat Waste Project has filed a lawsuit in federal court arguing that the United States Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) has wrongfully withheld documents related to experiments conducted on cats at its Beltsville, Maryland Agricultural Research Center.  White Coat Waste Project v. United States Department of Agriculture, No. 1:18-cv-02070 (D.D.C.).  Using the federal Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), the White Coat Waste Project requested records related to the USDA’s “Toxoplasmosis in Cats” study, including veterinary records for all cats and kittens used in the experiment, as well as a complete project budget.  Having received no response to its FOIA request within the statutory time limit, the White Coat Waste Project filed the lawsuit seeking a declaration that the USDA’s failure to respond to its FOIA request was unlawful, ordering USDA to produce the requested records, and for its attorneys’ fees. Continue reading “A Bipartisan Challenge to Animal Experimentation”

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The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author and are not to be construed as legal advice.

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