A federal court in California has granted in part and denied in part the motion to dismiss in a putative class action alleging that Whole Foods Market Group misleads consumers by labeling certain food products containing sodium acid pyrophosphate (SAPP) as “All Natural.” Garrison v. Whole Foods Mkt. Group, Inc., No. 13-5222 (U.S. Dist. Ct., N.D. Cal., order entered June 2, 2014). Additional information about the complaint appears in Issue 504 of this Update.
The court ruled that (i) the claims were not preempted under federal law; (ii) the primary jurisdiction doctrine did not apply (given the lack of a clear indication that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration intended to revisit its decision not to adopt formal regulations as to the meaning of “natural”); (iii) the plaintiffs sufficiently pleaded a cause of action (with the exception of allegations pertaining to marketing in various media and advertising—these claims were dismissed with leave to amend); (iv) the fraud allegations were pleaded with sufficient particularity; and (v) the named plaintiffs had standing to bring claims for products they had not purchased in light of the similarities among the product labels. According to the court, “By establishing that any of the labels were misleading, the Plaintiffs would necessarily establish that they all were. The named plaintiffs therefore have the ‘necessary stake in litigating’ the class’s claims required to confer standing.”
The court ruled that the plaintiffs could not seek injunctive relief because they know now that the products contain SAPP, a purportedly synthetic ingredient, and thus they will not be misled in the future. “It may very well be that the legislative intent behind California’s consumer protection statutes would be best served by enjoining deceptive labeling. But the power of federal courts is limited, and that power does not expand to accommodate the policy objectives underlying state law.” The court also dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims for unjust enrichment as duplicative of their other statutory and common law claims.