Thursday, April 25, 2013

Pictures of fruit support misleadingness claim for nutrients not derived from fruit

Bronson v. Johnson & Johnson, Inc., 2013 WL 1629191 (N.D. Cal.)

The plaintiffs sued under California law alleging that Splenda Essentials with Antioxidants, Splenda Essentials with Fiber, and Splenda Essentials with B Vitamins were deceptively advertised. They objected to the name “Essentials”; the label on Splenda with Fiber, which includes the statement “1 gram of fiber in each packet” and “healthy fiber” placed next to a photo of fruit and whole-grain cereal; the label on Splenda with Antioxidants, which includes the statement “20% of the daily value of antioxidant vitamins C and E, like those found in fruits and vegetables” placed near a picture of berries; and the label on Splenda Essentials with B Vitamins, which includes the statement “helps support a healthy metabolism.”  The court partially granted J&J’s motion to dismiss.

Plaintiffs alleged that Splenda Essentials costs 25% more than regular Splenda, and that they paid this extra based on J&J’s misrepresentations.  The versions with antioxidants and B vitamins were discontinued, but that didn’t affect plaintiffs’ claims for damages.

The plaintiffs claimed that they bought the products in reliance on the labels, but didn’t allege that they relied on any website or print marketing, so they didn’t have standing for anything but  claims based on the labels.  Though they aren’t required to plead exposure with an unrealistic degree of specificity under In re Tobacco II, that case dealt with an extensive and longterm ad campaign, whereas the campaign here began in 2012.

Preemption: As for Splenda Essentials with Antioxidants, the statement that the product contains “20% of the daily value of antioxidant vitamins C and E” was an express nutrient content claim. The regulations allow nutrient content claims for antioxidants when: (1) an RDI (recommended daily intake) has been established for each of the nutrients; (2) the nutrients that are the subject of the claim have recognized antioxidant activity; (3) the level of each nutrient is at least 10% of the RDI for vitamins; and (4) the names of each nutrient are included on the label. Any additional requirements would be preempted.  The label here met each requirement. Because the FDA doesn’t require a distinction between synthetically derived antioxidants and those derived from fruit, claims that the label was misleading for failing to do so were preempted.

However, there was no preemption with regard to the statement “like those found in fruits and vegetables” placed next to a photograph of antioxidant rich foods like strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries.  J&J argued that “the FDA affirmatively prohibits manufacturers from labeling products in any manner that suggests that ‘a natural vitamin in a food is superior to an added or synthetic vitamin.’”  But plaintiffs weren’t arguing that the label led consumers to think that vitamins in fruit were better.  Instead, they argued that J&J misleadingly suggested that the product’s antioxidants were actually derived from fruits and vegetables, or that they produce the same health benefits as fruits and vegetables.

Turning to Splenda Essentials with Fiber, plaintiffs alleged that the label was misleading because J&J didn’t differentiate between the health benefits of fiber found in whole grains, etc., versus refined fiber.  But that claim was preempted since the FDCA and NLEA specifically addressed the labeling of dietary fiber on a package.  The FDA rejected a proposal to distinguish between intact plant fiber and synthetically manufactured fiber.  Federal law required no more than what J&J did.

For Splenda Essentials with B Vitamins, plaintiffs challenged the statement that it would “help support a healthy metabolism.” J&J argued that this was a structure/function claim specifically permitted by FDA regulations, but preemption for structure/function claims was limited to dietary supplements, not food.  J&J argued that the preemption provisions should be read broadly since the DSHEA’s goal was to bring dietary supplement labeling in line with food labeling.  But the specific language of the preemption provision applied to dietary supplements, not food, and preemption statutes are to be construed narrowly.  Nor was the claim impliedly preempted; J&J didn’t show that these claims would upend a carefully calculated scheme. The FDA hasn’t promulgated nuanced regulatory guidelines on food structure/function statements.  Even if structure/function claims are permitted by the FDA, FDA regulations bar misleading statements, and plaintiffs alleged misleadingness.

J&J argued that plaintiffs were bringing a mere lack of substantiation claim, and the court agreed in part.  “A claim can survive a lack of substantiation challenge by, for example, alleging studies showing that a defendant's statement is false. In contrast, a plaintiff's reliance on a lack of scientific evidence or inconclusive, rather than contradictory, evidence is not sufficient to state a claim.” With respect to B vitamins and fiber, plaintiffs alleged only lack of substantiation--“no reliable studies have shown” that Splenda Essentials with B Vitamins promotes weight loss, that “there is no scientific consensus that refined fibers function like intact fibers”,  and that “research is inconclusive about the physiological benefits of refined, processed fiber.”  They didn’t cite any source stating that B vitamins don’t contribute to weight loss or that the effect of refined fiber is actually different than intact fiber. However, plaintiffs did allege falsity with respect to some claims, “which further confirms that Plaintiffs' claims lacking such allegations rest on mere lack of substantiation theories.” They couldn’t rely on FTC substantiation standards for health claims, since private citizens under California law can’t bring lack of substantiation claims.

However, their claims based on Splenda Essentials with Antioxidants were “adequately, if tenuously, pled.”  The allegations that the label misleadingly suggested that the antioxidants in the product, vitamins C and E, were derived from fruits and vegetables, when they are actually ascorbic acid and synthetically created vitamin E, survived.  And they alleged the existence of at least one source stating that the vast majority of antioxidant benefits from fruit come from the entire fruit, and not just the vitamin C.  This properly alleged misleadingness as to the source of the vitamins and as to whether Splenda’s benefits were the same as benefits from fruit. 

The court noted that federal law expressly permitted certain statements.  It was therefore unclear how much a court could rely on preempted statements when considering what a reasonable consumer would think of the whole label.  Still, because the Antioxidants label might be misleading to a reasonable consumer regardless of the preempted statements, the court didn’t need to resolve the question.

The statement “20% of the daily value of antioxidant vitamins C & E, like those found in fruits and vegetables,” when viewed in the context of the photos of multiple berries, could create the misleading impression that the vitamins “are derived from fruit or provide [ ] the same benefits as real fruit, even though they do not provide any notable health benefits.” A reasonable consumer could think that the antioxidants were derived from berries, rather than ascorbic acid and synthetically created vitamins, and might also incorrectly believe that Splenda Essentials has the same health benefits as consuming real fruit.

However, putting “Essentials” in the name wasn’t misleading, despite plaintiffs’ arguments that it “cue[d] customers to think this product is a necessity” and suggested that the nutrients included are necessary to be healthy.  “Essentials” was mere puffery.

Because the consumer law claims survived, so did the breach of implied warranty of merchantability claim.

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