Federal law preempted most of the claims in a class action suit against Quaker Oats, a U.S. District Court judge has ruled. The plaintiffs claimed that the Quaker Oats’ Chewy brand granola bar box labels misled consumers about their health value by using terms like “wholesome” and “smart choices made easy” as well as pictures of children playing.
In reality, the granola bars contain “dangerous amounts of trans fat,” according to the complaint, which sought an injunction to stop the company from making a “0 grams trans fats” statement on its label, as well as corrective advertising.
Quaker Oats lists hydrogenated vegetable oil in the ingredient list for Chewy Bars, but the nutrition label states that a single bar contains “0 grams trans fats.” Quaker Oats argued that under Food and Drug Administration regulations, it was allowed to make such a claim because any level of trans fat that falls below 0.5 gram per serving must be rounded down to zero.
But the plaintiffs contended that including the “0 grams” statement on a side panel of the box - removed from the nutrition facts section but plainly visible to consumers - was false and misleading. The court disagreed, noting that “[n]othing in the FDA statutes or regulations requires Quaker Oats to declare the trans fat level in this manner.” The court further said that Quaker Oats’ claims that the Chewy Bars contain “whole grain oats” and do not include high fructose corn syrup were not misleading, even though the product contains hydrogenated vegetable oil, because “the presence of trans fats alone is not a ‘disqualifying’ nutrient which would prevent Quaker Oats from emphasizing whatever other health benefits are available from the Bars’ other ingredients or because it lacks certain ingredients.” The court also held that the plaintiffs’ claims pertaining to Quaker Oats’ use of the term “wholesome” and “smart choices made easy,” as well as the depictions of oats, nuts, and children, could continue.
Because the FDA has “not developed even an informal policy governing or defining the word ‘wholesome,’” the plaintiffs could argue under state law that the use of the term was misleading to consumers, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Seeborg said.
“Taking plaintiffs’ allegation that trans fats are not safe in any amount as true, and crediting the inference plaintiffs draw from the box (that is, that active, healthy children are fueled with Chewy Bars),” the court said it was too soon to dismiss the suit.
To read the complaint in Chacanaca v. The Quaker Oats Co., click here.
To read the motion to dismiss in Chacanaca v. The Quaker Oats Co., click here.
Why it matters: The court’s decision is a mixed bag for Quaker Oats. While the court refused to let the plaintiffs create a heightened standard for claims relating to trans fats – the subject of several class actions against food manufacturers – it did allow the claims based on more subjective terms not regulated by the FDA, like “wholesome,” to continue.