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Ninth Circuit Defers to FDA on “Natural” and “Evaporated Cane Juice” Labeling

Tree_iStock_000004633733LargeBy Kate T. Spelman

On March 24th, the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal of Kane v. Chobani, LLC.  In this putative class action, plaintiffs alleged violations of California’s consumer protection laws in connection with Chobani’s use of the terms “all natural” and “evaporated cane juice” on its yogurt labels.  Specifically, the plaintiffs claimed that the yogurt maker’s use of the terms was deceptive and misleading.  The district court found that, among other things, plaintiffs failed to plausibly allege that they actually relied on the labeling in making their purchasing decisions.

Interestingly, the Ninth Circuit did not issue a substantive ruling in Chobani, but rather remanded the action with instructions for the district court to enter a stay under the primary jurisdiction doctrine.  This doctrine allows the judicial branch to defer ruling on an issue that should be decided in the first instance by an executive agency with relevant expertise.  In this case, the Ninth Circuit recognized that questions regarding proper use of the terms “natural” and “evaporated cane juice” on food products “implicated technical and policy questions” that should be addressed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”).  The Ninth Circuit noted that because the FDA has recently expressed its intent to issue updated guidance on the terms “natural” and “evaporated cane juice”, a stay would not cause indefinite delay and would further the court’s interest in judicial efficiency.  This decision could have repercussions for a number of pending lawsuits regarding the use of these disputed terms on food labels.