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.

For the first 28 weeks of 2017, the most frequently alleged claims in new food and beverage false-advertising class actions have related to featured product ingredients that allegedly are absent, or present only in small quantities, in the food at issue.

We reviewed news reports and other mentions of newly-filed food advertising class actions for the first part of 2017 and tabulated the central cause or causes of action to learn where the current substantive focus is in these cases. Out of 52 new food advertising class actions reported between January 1 and July 15 as having been newly filed, the largest single category – 12 cases – alleged the absence of an ingredient that was featured on the product’s label and/or marketing.  Three of the suits concerned truffle-infused cooking oils, alleging that these products actually contained no truffles.  Two cases were filed against makers of ginger ales, which the suits alleged contained no ginger.  Single cases alleged that a guacamole contained very little avocado, that coconut water contained no coconut, that veggie snacks contained no vegetables, that canned octopus was really squid, and that “steak” in a sandwich was really non-steak ground beef.

The other major categories reflect the types of food advertising claims that have been much in the news in recent months. Nine cases concerned “natural” claims.  Nine cases objected to “no sugar added” or similar claims, generally on the basis that evaporated cane juice allegedly was not characterized as a sugar.  Seven cases concerned slack fill, and a further four cases alleged underfill (i.e., not that there was empty space in the package, but that the actual weight of product was less than the stated weight).  Five cases accused the food of overstating its healthiness, and a further three charged that the product falsely claimed a nutritional benefit.  Four cases alleged that an undesirable ingredient claimed not to be in the product, such as trans fat or preservatives, actually was present.

The accompanying chart shows the 52 actions broken down into categories of claims asserted. The total assertions amount to more than 52 because some cases asserted more than one type of claim.

Based on this analysis of 2017 thus far, the two takeaways for food manufacturers are (1) advertising class actions are alive and well and remain a threat, and (2) manufacturers should pay close critical attention to the accurate characterizing of their ingredients. Other well-known controversies over hot-button issues like “natural” claims, slack fill, and the treatment of evaporated cane juice continue to play out in the courts and to be the subject of new challenges.

(Click here to enlarge image.)