California Governor Jerry Brown recently signed into law Assembly Bill 2632, which amended California’s slack fill law to create several new exemptions, hopefully providing some relief from the plague of slack fill lawsuits that has hit the food and beverage industry, among others, particularly hard in recent years. For those who are unfamiliar, slack fill is non-functional empty space in product packaging. The argument that plaintiffs have been using is that this non-functional space renders the products misleading to consumers, causing them to think that they are getting more of the product than they actually are. Although there have been many lawsuits filed, they have met with little success. Nevertheless, they persist, as we’ve written about here.
Here’s a summary of the changes to California’s law:
- Online Sales Exempted. Perhaps the most significant change of the new law is that it exempts packaging sold in a mode of commerce that does not allow the consumer to view or handle the physical container or product. This would appear to exempt online sales, which is consistent with the rationale that a consumer could not be misled by packaging that he or she didn’t handle prior to purchase.
- Only If It’s Substantial. The law was amended to add the clarification that “nonfunctional slack fill is the empty space in a package that is filled to substantially less than its capacity for reasons other than any one or more of the following:…” “Substantially” is not defined but seems likely to create an argument that some degree of non-functional space is acceptable provided that it is not substantial. Consistent with this, the new law also states that “slack fill shall not be used as grounds to allege a violation of this section based solely on its presence unless it is nonfunctional slack fill.”
- Actual Size. The prior CA law required that the actual size of the product be depicted on the exterior packaging. The new law specifies that this depiction can be on any side of the packaging, excluding the bottom. “Actual size” must be noted in a clear and conspicuous disclosure.
- Fill Line. The new law also allows for a line or graphic representing the “fill line” on either the actual product or the product container. The “fill line” must be clearly and conspicuously depicted. If the product is subject to settling, the fill line must represent the minimum amount of expected settling.
The changes also apply to California’s Sherman Food and Drug Act. Slack fill lawsuits against food and beverage companies declined between 2016 and 2017 as courts resisted indulging arguments such as an inability to understand basic item counts clearly labeled on a container’s front label. We’ll see whether these changes collectively help drive numbers even lower.