The salt on the coating of sunflower seeds should be listed on the package’s label of ingredients even if nobody eats the shells, a federal appeals court has ruled.
“Some days we are called upon to consider such profound issues as eleventh-hour death penalty appeals, catastrophic threats to the environment, intense and existential questions of civil and human rights, and the most complicated, controversial problems in civil, criminal and administrative law,” Judge Barry Silverman wrote. “Today we consider the coating on sunflower seeds.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit was the latest panel to address whether consumer claims involving the packaging and labeling of food are preempted under federal law—specifically, the U.S. Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments on April 21 in a similar federal preemption case between POM Wonderful LLC and The Coca-Cola Co. In that case, which involved federal trademark claims that Coca-Cola’s Minute Maid subsidiary mislabeled the amount of pomegranate juice in its Pomegranate Blueberry drink, the Ninth Circuit in 2012 upheld dismissal of the case on federal-preemption ground.
In the sunflower seed case, two judges on the panel ruled on Feb. 20 that the sodium on the coating—which comes in flavors like Ranch and Nacho Cheese—must be included in the nutritional information printed on the packaging of ConAgra Foods Inc.’s David brand of sunflower seeds, and that consumer claims under California law weren’t preempted by the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, part of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
The panel reversed a lower court’s April 19, 2012, dismissal of the case, a class action filed on behalf of California consumers. U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner cited federal preemption.
“We are pleased with the Ninth Circuit’s decision,” said Rosemary Rivas, a partner at Finkelstein Thompson in San Francisco who represents the plaintiff, Aleta Lilly. “It confirms that consumers are entitled to know exactly how much sodium is contained in a food product before they buy it for consumption.”
ConAgra spokesman Lanie Friedman declined to comment beyond the case but stated that “we stand behind the accuracy of our labeling and the quality of our products.”
The panel disagreed with ConAgra’s view that federal law preempts claims over “inedible components” of food, such as the shell of a sunflower seed, which is inedible.
“To the contrary,” Silverman wrote, “the coatings impart flavor and are indisputably intended to be ingested as part of the sunflower seed eating experience.”
In a dissent, U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson of the Northern District of Florida, sitting by designation, concluded that federal law, which specifically refers to shells as “inedible components,” preempted the plaintiffs’ claims and that ConAgra’s packaging complied with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s regulations.
“It is undisputed that the sunflower seed shells at issue in this case are inedible,” he wrote. “Although we might prefer a regulation that includes the shell’s absorbed salt and to draw a distinction between an edible ‘coating’ and an inedible shell, we are nonetheless bound to apply this unambiguous regulation objectively as it has been written.”
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