Evaporated cane juice lawsuits update: Blue Diamond, Trader Joe’s, Wallaby Yogurt Co under fire, Chobani off the hook?

By Elaine WATSON

- Last updated on GMT

Evaporated cane juice lawsuits: Blue Diamond, Trader Joe’s, Chobani

Related tags Pleading Plaintiff Fda

As a tidal wave of civil litigation over the use of the term ‘evaporated cane juice’ (ECJ) to describe dried cane syrup (aka sugar) continues to engulf the food industry, there has been good and bad news for some high-profile defendants this month.

Chobani persuaded a judge to ditch a putative class action alleging it misled consumers by calling dried cane syrup ‘evaporated cane juice’ on product labels (although the case has not been dismissed with prejudice), but Blue Diamond Growers, Trader Joe’s and Wallaby Yogurt Company failed to convince federal judges in the same district (Northern California) to ditch their cases.

The news came as a new wave of ECJ-related complaints was filed by law firm Pratt & Associates (which is also representing plaintiffs in the cases above) against the makers of Zola acai drinks, Steaz Iced Teas and others*.

Judge reconsiders putative class action v Chobani, and decides she will​ grant its motion to dismiss

Looking at some recent ECJ-related Court orders, there was good news for Chobani (which is also facing legal action over the recent moldy yogurt incident).

In her September 19 order on  the Kane et al v Chobani case​ (5:2012cv02425), judge Lucy Koh granted Chobani’s motion to dismiss all of the claims, although she did allow the plaintiffs to file an amended complaint and re-plead some claims.  

However, other high-profile defendants facing similar lawsuits were not so lucky.

Blue Diamond not so lucky: Case to proceed

In her October 2 order on an ECJ-related putative class action (Chris Werdebaugh et al. v. Blue Diamond Growers, 5:12-cv-02724), Koh rejected the almond giant’s bid to dismiss the case.

Werdebaugh alleged that Blue Diamond misled consumers by listing ‘evaporated cane juice’ as an ingredient instead of sugar cane or cane syrup in its Almond Breeze almond milks, despite the fact that the FDA had sent out multiple warning letters and produced draft guidance​ specifically telling firms not to use the term because it is false and misleading and ECJ is not a ‘juice’.

Silk coconut milk
WhiteWave Foods recently agreed to settle a putative class action lawsuit over evaporated cane juice claims and agreed to replace the term with ‘organic cane sugar’ or ‘cane sugar’ (Singer v. WWF Operating Co. No. 13-CV-21232).

Federal regulations also instruct that ingredients must be described by their common or usual names, and that to call something “juice​” it should be “the aqueous liquid expressed or extracted from one or more fruits or vegetables”, ​he argued.

Judge: The Plaintiff’s claims are not pre-empted by federal law, and applying the doctrine of primary jurisdiction is not warranted

Many of his arguments convinced Koh, who rejected Blue Diamond’s contention that Werdebaugh lacked constitutional and statutory standing and denied Blue Diamond’s motion to strike his claim for monetary damages under the California Consumers Legal Remedies Act.  

She also rejected the argument that Werdebaugh’s complaint should be dismissed because the claims are pre-empted by the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) or covered by the doctrine of primary jurisdiction (and should be left to the FDA to determine).

“The Plaintiff’s claims are not pre-empted by federal law, and applying the doctrine of primary jurisdiction is not warranted in this instance”, ​said Koh.

Her stance is in sharp contrast to that of judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers, who recently dismissed an ECJ lawsuit (Hood vs Wholesoy & Co), on primary jurisdiction grounds (“The Court finds it is appropriate to defer to the authority and expertise of the FDA to say what the appropriate rules should be with respect to evaporated cane juice”).

In fact, said Koh, it is not​ appropriate to pass this matter to the FDA, given that it has repeatedly “articulated a position on the use of evaporated cane juice that is both internally consistent and consistent with existing regulatory requirements”.

Trader Joes’: Plaintiffs have stated plausible allegations that the use of the term evaporated cane juice violates the Sherman Law

Trader Joe's
Plaintiffs in a putative class action lawsuit vs Trader Joe’s have “stated plausible allegations that the use of the term evaporated cane juice violates the Sherman Law”, said US District Judge William H Orrick

Meanwhile, in two more ECJ-related case (Amy Gitson et al v Trader Joe’s​ and Frank Morgan et al v Wallaby Yogurt Company), judge William H Orrick also rejected the defendants’ arguments that the complaints should be dismissed because the claims are pre-empted or covered by primary jurisdiction.

Orrick said: “Wallaby cannot credibly argue that the FDA has such expertise that the Court must defer to it under the primary jurisdiction doctrine and then turn around and suggest that the FDA’s views​ [as expressed in its draft guidance​], even if tentative, should not guide the Court in determining whether Wallaby may have violated the law.”

While he dismissed most of the claims in both lawsuits, he said the plaintiffs in the Trader Joe’s case had “stated plausible allegations that the use of the term evaporated cane juice violates the Sherman Law”.

Meanwhile, the plaintiffs in the Wallaby case did “adequately plead that using the term ‘evaporated cane juice’ instead of ‘sugar’ violates the ‘unlawful’ prong of California’s Unfair Competition Law”, ​he said.

Attorney: It's all over the map  

Asked what food marketers are supposed to make of all this, Justin Prochnow, an attorney in the Denver office of law firm Greenberg Traurig, said: "It’s kind of all over the map, similar to the litigation surrounding 'all natural'.  Some judges find preemption, some judges don’t.  I am unaware of any judges that have actually gotten to the merits of the claim."

But he added: "I do think it is important to understand that while plaintiff lawyers like to point to the FDA’s Draft​ Guidance as evidence that use of the term “evaporated cane juice” is false and misleading, it is not evidence.  Additionally, while the FDA has sent warning letters that have also taken issue with the use of evaporated cane juice, FDA warning letters are not FDA action or evidence of wrong doing."

What is evaporated cane juice?


Evaporated cane juice - which is made by extracting the juice from sugar cane and then evaporating or removing the water and first became available commercially in the 1990s - has a “lower impact on taste profiles and food coloration​” than “common refined sugar​”, according to WhiteWave Foods.

Its widespread use is, unsurprisingly, most prevalent in healthy foods at the industry’s vanguard, stirring no controversy until this recent tsunami of lawsuits was filed.”

Click here​ to read the FDA's 2009 draft guidance on the use of the term evaporated cane juice.

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1 comment

How Many Ways Can You Say Sugar?

Posted by Janice Gregg,

The Harvard School of Public Health identifies 23 different names for added sugar on food labels.
The consumer advocacy site Consumerist calls them ‘code words’, and names 30 of them. Robert Lustig raised the number to 56 in his current bestseller Sugar Has 56 Names, and the American Institute for Cancer Research puts the total closer to 100.
You need to be a chemist, a detective, and a mathematician to hunt down all the sugars, add them all up, and turn them into information in a form that you can use to make educated decisions about diet and nutrition.

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