Image: Courtesy of fda.gov
Across the Bay Area, corporate attorneys with degrees from top law schools are considering the nutritional content of corn chips.
And in their chambers, federal judges are in deep contemplation over pints of Ben & Jerry's and packs of sugar-free gum.
If that sounds like a joke, then welcome to the Food Court.
That's what some practitioners have taken to calling the Northern District of California, reflecting its emergence as preferred venue for a new wave of class action litigation over food labels alleged to mislead consumers or violate federal regulations.
Though the merits of such cases have yet to be fully tested, judges here have rejected broad defenses to food labeling suits, spurring more litigation and setting the Northern District at the epicenter of a burgeoning legal fight over how food is labeled.
For defendants, early rulings mean that while food cases might seem technical and lawyer-driven, they won't be easy to get rid of at least not in the early stages and before commencing expensive discovery.
"In the Northern District, the judges have shown they're going to allow cases," said Morrison & Foerster partner William Stern, an expert on California's consumer protection laws who represents Ben & Jerry's, Del Monte Foods, Unilever Inc., Campbell Soup Co. and other food companies in labeling suits. "It's like having a welcome mat on the front door."
Since March 2012 a network of plaintiffs lawyers, including many veterans of Big Tobacco litigation, have filed 28 food label class actions in Bay Area federal courts.
Their suits challenge labeling on a grocery list that includes apple juice, yogurt, granola bars, frozen waffles, cocoa mix, baby food, cooking spray, potato chips and ice cream. Many suits zero in on ostensible health foods, taking issue with claims that products are 100 percent natural, lack trans fat or contain no added sugar. The Northern District offers plaintiffs both a consumer-friendly legal climate and a health-conscious jury pool.
The onslaught means most every judge in the district is confronting the issue: U.S. District Judge Edward Davila in San Jose has at least nine food labeling cases on his docket. One floor down, Judge Lucy Koh has six.