Federal Judge Rejects Sunflower Seed Salt Class Action

Federal Judge Rejects Sunflower Seed Salt Class Action Photo: Daisy Daisy/iStockphoto.com

A federal judge in California has dismissed a class action filed against two grocery store chains alleging that the packaging of private-label sunflower seeds misled consumers about sodium content.

The case, brought on April 7 in Los Angeles, claims that the salt on the inedible shell of sunflower seeds sold at Kroger and Ralphs stores should have been included in the labeling.

Plaintiff Cody Weiss, who purchased a bag of Kroger sunflower seeds at a Ralphs store in Los Angeles, claimed that a single serving contained 1,383 milligrams of sodium—nearly four times the amount in a large order of McDonald’s French fries. The label says that a serving contains 130 milligrams of sodium.

On Friday, U.S. District Judge Manuel Real in Los Angeles concluded that the ingredients listed on the label clearly pertained only to the “edible portion” of the sunflower seed.

“The fact that the label in the instant case specifically refers to the sodium content on the ‘edible portion’ of the product renders Weiss’ claims implausible,” Real wrote. “A reasonable consumer knows that the seed is edible and that the shell is not, and would understand that the edible portion that the label referred to was the seed.”

“He was clear it was because the label on the Kroger and Ralphs sunflower seeds was not misleading,” said Jacob Harper, an attorney at Los Angeles-based TroyGould who represents The Kroger Co., the Cincinnati chain that owns Ralphs. “It complied with all notions of what an edible portion of a sunflower seed was.”

Weiss’s attorney, Christopher Ridout, a partner at Ridout Lyon + Ottoson in Long Beach, Calif., did not return a call for comment.

Ridout brought a similar case against Monrovia, Calif.’s Trader Joe’s Co., which is pending in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

On Feb. 20, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed dismissal of a class action against ConAgra Foods Inc. over the labeling of its David brand sunflower seeds, finding that Aleta Lilly’s claims weren’t preempted by the U.S. Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, part of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. ConAgra later agreed to re-label its product to disclose the sodium content of the coating as part of a settlement. U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner in Los Angeles has scheduled a Sept. 8 hearing on whether to approve the settlement.

Real, in his dismissal order, said the cases weren’t the same because, unlike David sunflower seeds, which come in coating flavors like Ranch and Nacho Cheese, the seeds in the Kroger’s and Ralphs case lack flavored coatings. The David sunflower seeds also contained instructions about how to eat sunflower seeds.

“The lack of a special coated flavoring and instructions in the instant case mean that an essential rationale of Lilly, that ‘the coatings impart flavor and are indisputably intended to be ingested as part of the sunflower seed eating experience,’ is not applicable here,” Real wrote.

Contact Amanda Bronstad at abronstad@alm.com.