Trader Joe’s enjoys sweet victory, dismissal of honey labeling case

A putative class action involving allegations related to Trader Joe’s Manuka Honey has been dismissed after a California federal district court granted Trader Joe’s motion to dismiss without leave to amend. The consumers alleged that Trader Joe’s mislabeled and falsely advertised its manuka honey as “pure” when it was allegedly adulterated. In dismissing the complaint, the court concluded that plaintiffs could not plead sufficient facts to support their adulteration theory since their theory involved the bee’s mixing of pollen and not the manufacturer intentionally mixing manuka honey with non-manuka honey. Since the consumers admitted they could not plead enough facts to support their adulteration claims, the court also dismissed the breach of warranty and fraud claims. The product labeling is accurate and, therefore, not misleading. Finally, the state law claims are preempted (Moore v. Trader Joe’s Company, June 24, 2019, Westmore, K.).

Trader Joe’s (manufacturer) markets and sells “Trader Joe’s Manuka Honey.” Plaintiffs (consumers) allege that two representations contributed to their alleged injuries. On the front label, the product states “100% New Zealand Manuka Honey” or “New Zealand Manuka Honey. The ingredient statement lists “manuka honey” as the only ingredient. The consumers allege that the product testing they purchased showed that approximately 57 and 62 percent of the pollen in the tested honey was from the manuka flower; the remaining pollen was from other floral sources. The consumers allege that Trader Joe’s sales and marketing violate consumer protection laws because the honey is mislabeled and falsely advertised as pure manuka honey, but it should be labeled as “Manuka-based.” Trader Joe’s filed a motion to dismiss.

Insufficient facts to support adulteration

The court granted the manufacturer’s motion to dismiss without leave to amend because the consumers confirmed they could not plead sufficient facts to support the adulteration theory.

The consumers’ theory of adulteration is that bees visit different floral sources and return to the hive, which lowers the manuka pollen count; their theory was not that the manufacturer purposefully mixed manuka honey with non-manuka honey. The FDA’s industry guidance on honey labeling, which was referenced by both parties, only discusses adulteration with non-honey sources and not mixing high-value honey with less expensive honey. Further, the guidance does not address whether the mixing would constitute adulteration.

The court concluded that to constitute adulteration, the manufacturer would have to purposefully mix manuka and non-manuka honey. In this case, all the involved honey is technically manuka honey with varying pollen counts—there is no adulteration in violation of the FDC Act.

Since the consumers could not demonstrate adulteration, the court also dismissed the breach of warranty claim and fraud claim. The fraud claim is not actionable because it is predicated on adulteration whereby the manufacturer (not bees) purposefully mixed manuka and non-manuka honey; the consumers have no facts to support that theory.

Product labeling is accurate and not misleading

The court concluded that product label is accurate because the consumers cannot allege adulteration, honey is a single ingredient food, and the chief floral source is manuka. Furthermore, since the label is accurate, a reasonable consumer cannot find it misleading. Trader Joe’s product is accurately labeled as 100 percent manuka honey.

FDA delays routine regulatory inspections for large animal food facilities

The FDA has announced that routine regulatory inspections for large animal food facilities to ensure compliance with regulations under the FDA’s Preventive Controls for Animal Food rule (80 FR 56170) will not begin until the fall of 2018. Effective September 18, 2017, large animal food facilities must comply with preventive controls requirements mandated by the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) (P.L. 111-353).

Education and flexibility

Large animal food facilities, those with 500 or more full-time equivalent employees, also had to comply with the current Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP) requirements by September 2016. Based on feedback from animal food producers, the FDA has decided that although the new preventive control regulations will take effect as announced in the final rule as of September 18, 2017, the FDA will first focus on education before regulation. The agency noted that the industry needs additional time and technical assistance to fully understand the requirements of the new regulations for preventive controls. Jenny Murphy, a consumer safety officer with the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, said in a recent interview that the FDA will allow larger facilities some flexibility to further develop their plans and ensure that their system is operating correctly as guidance from FDA and other resources are put in place.

Increased inspections

While the FDA announced a delay in the routine regulatory inspections for the prevent controls requirements, the FDA will increase oversight of cGMPs with more routine inspections. Effective September 18, 2017, both large and small animal food facilities must meet the cGMP requirements. The cGMPs establish a foundation before establishing preventive controls. “CGMPs establish a base to make sure you don’t contaminate the animal food and the preventive controls take it a step further by making you really concentrate on things that, if they’re found in animal food, could be a public health concern,” said Murphy. “Once you have CGMPs in place, you can see where you need extra layers of protection.”

The FDA adopted the Final rule in an effort to improve public health, and established for the first time cGMPs for food for animals, which are akin to the cGMPs that have long applied to human food. Along with the cGMPs, facilities must establish and implement a food safety system that includes an analysis of hazards and risk-based preventive controls. The rule also mandates that animal food facilities establish a supply chain program.

False promises rebuked by FDA, no tea or vitamin can cure cancer

Bogus cancer “treatments” being marketing and sold without FDA approval were the target of 14 warning letters and four online advisory letters, according to a press release and consumer update from the agency. The 65-plus products listed by the agency include pills, tablets, creams, syrups, sprays, oils, salves, teas, and medical devices, claiming to cure cancer in humans and pets, and have been found illegally for sale online, in retail stores, at flea markets and swap meets, and even at trade shows.

The FDA called these illegal products a “cruel deception,” and urged consumers to stay away from products that have not passed the agency’s review process, designed to ensure the safety and effectiveness of treatments. It listed the following phases or concepts as warning signs that the advertised product was unlikely to be approved by the agency:

  • treats all forms of cancer;
  • miraculously kills cancer cells and tumors;
  • shrinks malignant tumors;
  • selectively kills cancer cells;
  • more effective than chemotherapy;
  • attacks cancer cells, leaving healthy cells intact; or
  • cures cancer.

Additionally, many of the products that were the subject of the warnings were advertised as “natural” or “non-toxic.”

The warning and advisory letters ask the recipient companies to provide written responses to the violations covered in the letters; if the companies fail to respond and make adequate corrections, they could be subject to further actions including criminal prosecution. According to the FDA, the best scenario for consumers who have purchased or used these products is ineffectiveness. It is possible, however, that these products could interfere with proven, beneficial treatments, or even cause direct harm.

FDA opens toolbox for imported food oversight

The FDA is relying on “a range of tools” to ensure the safety of imported foods, in keeping with directives under the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). Because 15 percent of the Food supply is imported, the FDA has developed “a multi-faceted toolkit” to help ensure the safety of imported food. To meet food safety oversight demands, the FDA is allocating resources based upon risk, leveraging the work of other responsible entities in the food supply chain, and combining FSMA tools with existing methods (inspections, physical examinations, sampling/testing).

Food supply

According to the FDA, about 15 percent of the U.S. food supply is imported. However, some aspects of the food supply are predominantly supplied through imports. For example, nearly 50 percent of fresh fruit, 20 percent of fresh vegetables, and 80 percent of seafood are derived from imports. Food supply imports come from more than 200 countries and around 125,000 firms.

Oversight

Dr. Donald Prater, Acting Assistant Commissioner for Food Safety Integration in the Office of Foods and Veterinary Medicine (FVM), noted that under changing oversight protocols, while the level of oversight will be comparable across the food supply chain, “the deployment of the tools may be different.” For example, he noted the requirement that importers verify their suppliers produce food consistent with U.S. food safety standards. He indicated that the goal of imported food safety oversight was not to establish the same system of oversight for domestic and imported foods, but, instead, “to ensure that foods imported from abroad are as safe as those produced domestically.”