As Clear as Milk: Misleading Milk Marketing?

MJLST Guest Blogger, Tommy Tobin

[Editor’s Note: This is the second in guest blogger Tommy Tobin’s latest series on Food and FDA law.  You can find his earlier post here.]

Milk and cookies are one of the quintessential American comfort food combinations. Even so, considerable controversy has arisen out of products being labeled and sold as “milk.” I guess that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.

“Milk” has a precise regulatory definition under 21 C.F.R. § 131.110. Inter alia, “milk” is “the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.” Leave it to the C.F.R. to make food sound delicious.

The Eleventh Circuit recently decided that a “skim milk” product could be sold as such. The Circuit’s March 20, 2017 decision in Ocheesee Creamery LLC v. Putnam examined whether a Florida statute barred the business from labeling its product “skim milk” if it did not contain Vitamin A. The court below had upheld that law, and the dairy appealed claiming infringement of its free speech rights. Using dictionary definitions and common sense, the panel ruled that the dairy’s use of the words “skim milk” to describe its skim milk would not mislead consumers.

As consumers walk around the grocery store, they may see other products labeled “milk.” As the AP declared, “fake milk” is one of America’s latest food fights. In addition to milk from cows, consumers may see products labeled as “milk” that are derived from almonds, soy, coconuts, or rice. Would consumers actually get confused between these “milk” products and cow milk? The Northern District of California said no.

In a 2013 decision in Ang v. Whitewave Foods Co., consumers brought suit asserting, inter alia, that products like “soymilk,” “almond milk,” and “coconut milk” represented fraudulent business practices and false advertising as they did not come from cows. The court found the claim utterly ridiculous, finding that the descriptions accurately described the nature of the products. The opinion reasoned that “it is simply implausible that a reasonable consumer would mistake a product like soymilk or almond milk with dairy milk from a cow. The first words in the products’ names should be obvious enough to even the least discerning of consumers.”

In 2015, the Northern District of California revisited whether “soymilk” would mislead a reasonable consumer.  In Gitson v. Trader Joe’s, the federal court examined whether advertising a product as “soymilk” would violate the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. The court first examined whether the use of “soymilk” was false or misleading, finding that the “reasonable consumer (indeed, even the least sophisticated consumer) does not think soymilk comes from a cow.” Second, the court analyzed whether “soymilk” ran afoul of the regulatory definition of “milk” discussed above. The court concluded that Trader Joe’s did not attempt to pass off its soymilk as “milk,” that is the soymilk was not purported to come from a cow.

While many might find the courtroom melee over milk to be melodrama, figuring out what’s in a name is more than making a mountain out of a molehill. It may matter to companies’ bottom lines.

From mayonnaise to margarine, food fights over standards of identity are likely to increase given the rate of innovation in the food industry and its creative marketers, according to the Food+Bev Law Blog. As noted there, “what you call a food clearly influences consumers’ opinions and purchasing decisions.” Time will tell how companies and consumers react to evolving identities and innovation throughout the food industry.

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