A federal district court in California has held that federal law preempts state consumer protection laws that would provide a cause of action for certain claims that nutritional information on food labels is false or misleading.
In Peviani v. Hostess Brands, Inc., No. 10-2303 (C.D. Cal. Nov. 3, 2010), the plaintiff (seeking to represent a class) alleged that the front packaging of certain Hostess food products contained misleading representations that the products had “0 Grams of Trans Fat” when, in fact, the products had slightly larger amounts (less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving). Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations provide that “if [a] serving contains less than 0.5 gram[s of trans fat], the content, when declared, shall be expressed as zero.” Relying on these regulations under the federal Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA), the court held that the NLEA expressly preempted the plaintiff’s claims under California’s Unfair Competition Law, Consumer Legal Remedies Act, and other state consumer protection statutes. The court reasoned that because the NLEA and accompanying FDA regulations permit food makers to round down small amounts of trans fat to zero, the plaintiff’s claims “would necessarily impose a state-law obligation for trans fat disclosure that is not required by federal law.”
Peviani is one of a host of class actions that have been filed under state consumer protection laws to challenge a food manufacturer’s nutritional claims. (For example, a federal lawsuit filed in California alleges that the nutritional claims on Quaker Chewy Bar labels violate state consumer-protection law.) The court’s decision in Peviani will help food manufacturers argue that compliance with FDA regulations is sufficient to preclude the risk that nutritional information on food labels will, in effect, be regulated by juries applying the different laws of fifty states.