A California federal court took a second look and decided to dismiss a proposed class action related to the ingredient “evaporated cane juice” in guacamole products. See  Swearingen et al. v. Yucatan Foods LP, No. 3:13-cv-03544 (N.D. Cal. 2014).

I am told that guacamole actually dates back to at least the 16th century, and was first made by the Aztecs in Mexico.  The 21st century issue relates to Plaintiffs in this putative class action claiming that use of the term “evaporated cane juice” in the product was unlawful in light of federal food labeling laws and regulations -- and therefore violative of California’s Sherman and Unfair Competition Laws. Defendants moved to dismiss based on the doctrine of primary jurisdiction.  The primary jurisdiction doctrine applies when there is: (1) [a] need to resolve an issue that (2) has been placed by Congress within the jurisdiction of an administrative body having regulatory authority (3) pursuant to a statute that subjects an industry or activity to a comprehensive regulatory authority that (4) requires expertise or uniformity in administration. See Clark v. Time Warner, 523 F.3d 1110, 1115 (9th Cir. 2008). The doctrine of primary jurisdiction is not designed to secure expert advice from agencies every time a court is presented with an issue conceivably within the agency’s ambit. It is to be used if a claim requires resolution of an issue of first impression, or of a particularly complicated issue that Congress has committed to a regulatory agency.

Here, the court originally denied the motion, in light of the fact that the FDA had not yet finalized a draft guidance issued more than four years ago, and that it continued to issue warning letters consistent with that earlier position.  However, on March 5, 2014, the FDA issued a notice in the Federal Register reopening the comment period for the draft guidance first issued on October 7, 2009, relative to the use of the term “evaporated cane juice.” That notice stated: “We have not reached a final decision on the common or usual name for this ingredient and are reopening the comment period to request further comments, data, and information about the basic nature and characterizing properties of the ingredient sometimes declared as ‘‘evaporated cane juice,’ how this ingredient is produced, and how it compares with other sweeteners.” In light of this notice, Yucatan moved for reconsideration of the court’s prior order. Plaintiffs argued in response to the motion that the FDA is not engaged in formal rulemaking, and that even final guidance would not be binding on either the agency or manufacturers. See 21 C.F.R. § 10.115 (“Guidance documents do not establish legally enforceable rights or responsibilities. They do not legally bind the public or FDA.”).  But the notice did indicate that the FDA is actively engaged with the very issue presented in this litigation, one which has prompted a flurry of litigation in the federal courts.  The court noted that the question of evaporated cane juice labeling presents a host of technical issues uniquely within the agency’s expertise. For example, the FDA has specifically solicited comment on the basic nature and characterizing properties of the ingredient in question, and the difference between this ingredient and other sweeteners made from sugar cane.  Deferring to the FDA for resolution of these issues would enhance decision-making and efficiency by allowing the court to take advantage of administrative expertise.

A court presented with an issue to which agency deference is due under the primary jurisdiction doctrine has the discretion either to stay the case or to dismiss it without prejudice. Normally, if the court concludes that the dispute which forms the basis of the action is within the agency’s primary jurisdiction, the case should be dismissed so that the parties may pursue their administrative remedies. Syntek Semiconductor Co. v. Microchip Tech., Inc., 307 F.3d 775, 782 (9th Cir. 2002). Here, concluded the court, it was not necessary in this case for the court to maintain jurisdiction. Plaintiffs in this case sought primarily injunctive relief on behalf of a putative class for various products purchased throughout a four-year period preceding this litigation. Should some amount of time elapse before the FDA issued final guidance on this issue, no particular disadvantage inured to the plaintiffs.