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Full Federal Pre-emption of State Consumer Protection Food Suits

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Johnson & Johnson (through a wholly-owned subsidiary) manufactures Benecol Regular and Benecol Light Spreads. J&J has had to defend against multiple suits, including one by a Thomas Young, who filed a consumer fraud class action against alleging that Benecol's labeling was false and misleading In particular, the complaint focused on Benecol's claims, on its packaging, that Benecol was: (1) "Proven to Reduce Cholesterol"; and contained (2) "NO TRANS FAT."

In fact, Benecol does contain a tiny amount of partially hydrogenated oil (aka trans fat): an amount that FDA called "insignificant." As for the "Proven to Reduce Cholesterol" claim, Young asserted that it must be false too, because Benecol is allegedly rendered so unhealthy by virtue of containing "dangerous, non-nutritious, unhealthy partially hydrogenated oil" that the cholesterol claim is misleading. So Young sued, invoking New York and New Jersey consumer laws.

In April 2012, the federal district court granted Johnson & Johnson's motion to dismiss the complaint, ruling inter alia that Young's claims were expressly preempted by the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA), 21 U.S.C. ยง 301 et seq., which (since the adoption of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) in 1990) expressly preempts any state law "requirement" regarding food labeling "that is not identical to the requirement[s]" imposed by federal law. FDA regulations "require that trans fat levels less than 0.5 grams per serving 'shall be expressed as zero.'" Thus, even if the trans fat claims were misleading under New York and New Jersey statutes, these laws could not be enforced. Young disagreed and appealed to the Third Circuit, arguing that his state consumer protection claims were not preempted because they were "not inconsistent" with FDA regulations. The alert reader has doubtless noted, however, that the statutory test is not whether state requirements are "consistent" with FDA requirements;, but whether they are "identical." Thus did the Third Circuit today affirm that NLEA pre-empts state consumer laws as regards food product labeling.

Another victory for common labeling standards for goods marketed nationally, and for amicus Washington Legal Foundation, which filed a persuasive brief for the winning side!

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Isaac Gorodetski
Project Manager,
Center for Legal Policy at the
Manhattan Institute
igorodetski@manhattan-institute.org

Katherine Lazarski
Press Officer,
Manhattan Institute
klazarski@manhattan-institute.org

 

Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.