A California federal court judge sided with Quaker Oats Co., ruling that it did not engage in false advertising by dubbing several varieties of its instant oatmeal “Maple & Brown Sugar,” even though the products did not contain maple syrup or maple sugar.

The consolidated litigation accused Quaker of conning consumers by using an image of a maple syrup jug and prominently displaying the words “maple and brown sugar” on the packaging for six different oatmeal products, even though they did not contain maple syrup or sugar. Maple syrup and maple sugar are premium ingredients that companies add to sweeten food products, which the plaintiffs claimed had a material bearing on consumers’ purchasing decisions.

Quaker moved to dismiss the action, arguing that the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) and the Nutritional Labeling and Education Act pre-empted plaintiffs’ claims under California, Illinois, Massachusetts and New Jersey state law.

U.S. District Judge Philip S. Gutierrez granted the motion, ruling that the plaintiffs were attempting to enjoin “exactly what federal law expressly permits.”

“Federal law expressly permits labeling to describe ‘the primary recognizable flavor(s), by word, [or] vignette,’ even if the product ‘contains no such ingredient,’” the court said. “The Court finds no allegations in the complaint to suggest that Defendant has not abided by the FDCA in labeling and marketing the Products. It has described the primary recognizable flavor—maple—both by word and by the image of a pitcher of syrup. It is permitted to do this so long as the flavor is appropriately labeled as ‘naturally’ or ‘artificially’ flavored—which, based on the Label of which this Court has taken judicial notice and on the absence of any allegations contained in the complaint that suggest otherwise, Defendant has done.”

Although the court determined that any misrepresentation or false advertising claim premised on Quaker’s federally compliant flavor-labeling was pre-empted, it granted the plaintiffs leave to amend on claims for express warranty and standing, as well as a false advertising claim based on maple as a sweetener.

To read the order in In re: Quaker Oats Maple & Brown Sugar Instant Oatmeal Litigation, click here.

Why it matters: The decision provides a victory for Quaker but sets the stage for a second round of argument on the issue of whether a false advertising claim based on maple as a sweetener—as opposed to as a flavoring—can survive a pre-emption defense.