Food and Agriculture

Snortable Chocolate Fails the Smell Test, But What Exactly Is It?

Tommy Tobin, MJLST Guest Blogger

 

Snorting chocolate does not sound like a good idea. In fact, it sounds downright crazy. Enter the aptly named “Coco Loko.”

As reported by the AP, Coco Loko is a cocktail of cacao powder and common energy-drink ingredients, such as guarana and taurine. Marketed by a company called Legal Lean, the product makes several bold claims and promises, including feelings similar to ecstasy and “a steady rush of euphoric energy that is great for party goers to dance the night away without a crash.” Oddly, that promised effect is juxtaposed with promises of “calm focus” and “natural relaxation.”

Legal Lean advises users to “consume responsibly.” Warnings include the all too familiar boilerplate that product statements have not been evaluated by FDA and that the products are not intended to diagnose or treat any disease. A notable product warning also advises potential customers that Coco Loko is “not recommended for children or pregnant women.” Legal Lean also notes that the product “may impair your ability to drive a car or operate machinery, and may cause health problems.” It is certainly helpful that the company recognizes that snorting a chocolate concoction up one’s nose may result in health issues and is warning potential consumers accordingly. Self magazine summarized the situation succinctly: “If it sounds like a bad idea to snort what basically amounts to glorified hot chocolate mix, you’re right.”

As the Huffington Post recently put it, “snortable chocolate exists now, for some reason.” The mere fact that this product exists raises myriad questions, not least of which is what the product actually is and how it will be regulated.

According to ABC News, FDA is currently weighing whether the product falls within its jurisdiction and is currently “not prepared to issue a determination regarding whether and how this product is subject to FDA jurisdiction at this time. In reaching that decision, FDA will need to evaluate the product labeling, marketing information, and/or any other information pertaining to the product’s intended use.”

While the intricacies of regulatory classifications are enough to make one crazy, Coco Loko’s regulatory future remains to be seen. As the administrative law bloodhounds at FDA continue their work sniffing out the proper classification for this product, here are some preliminary thoughts.

 

Is Coco Loko a Food?

Strictly speaking, probably not. The statutory definition of food, 21 U.S.C. § 321 (f), is not tremendously helpful here. The statute’s most applicable definition defines “food” as an article used for food or drink for man or other animals. Snorting something through one’s nose is not generally how most people consume their food or drink, especially as the nose is woefully devoid of taste buds.

Legal Lean may argue that an alternative use of the product is as a hot chocolate mix. Presumably, the Coco Loko powder could be used as a drink when dissolved in hot water. Even so, the company markets the product as “infused raw cacao snuff.”

The product’s marketing as “snuff” is highly suggestive that the company does not consider that the product is meant to be food, given that “snuff” is taken through the nose. Put differently, the company may huff and puff that the product is a “food,” but in the end, the stuff is “snuff” by their own admission.

 

Is it a Drug?

Possibly. Coco Loko is likely not a “drug” under 21 U.S.C. § 321 (g). One applicable definition of “drug” includes items “intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease in man or other animals.” Such an intention is expressly disclaimed by the makers of Coco Loko.

Another definition of “drug” applies to “articles (other than food) intended to affect the structure or any function of the body of man or other animals,” with a carve-out for foods and dietary supplements. Coco Loko does promise a rush of serotonin and endorphins, as well as “increased overall happiness.”

The structure or function claims made by Coco Loko could make it a “drug” if it is found to be neither a food nor dietary supplement. Put another way, the product appears to be an inhaled stimulant, and regulators could plausibly put it in the category of “drug” given the claims the product is making, in the case that the product does not fit in other categories.

 

Is it a Dietary Supplement?

It depends. Regulators could label Coco Loko as a “dietary supplement” under 21 U.S.C. § 321 (ff). Just as the definition of “food” was quite broad, so too is the statutory definition of “dietary supplements,” which helpfully notes that the term:

 

1) means a product (other than tobacco) intended to supplement the diet that bears or contains one or more of the following dietary ingredients:

(A) a vitamin;

(B) a mineral;

(C) an herb or other botanical;

(D) an amino acid;

(E) a dietary substance for use by man to supplement the diet by increasing the total dietary intake; or

(F) a concentrate, metabolite, constituent, extract, or combination of any ingredient described in clause (A), (B), (C), (D), or (E).”

 

Given the inclusion of cacao in the product, a colorable claim could be that Coco Loko contains a dietary substance used by man to supplement the diet. That said, is someone actually supplementing their diet by inhaling through their nose? Not being a doctor myself, I can only surmise that the snorted chocolate may have a circuitous path from the nose to one’s stomach—if it ends up there at all.

More on the nose, US News & World Report notes that the product’s label includes B vitamins, ginkgo biloba, blood flow-improving amino acid L-Arginine, as well as energy drink staples guarana and taurine. So, it would seem that Coco Loko would meet the vitamin and amino acid test.

Other aspects of the “dietary supplement” definition in 21 U.S.C. § 321 (ff) include that the item must not represent itself for use as a conventional food or as a sole item of a meal or the diet. “Dietary supplements” must also be labeled as such. If its labeling does not call it a “dietary supplement,” Coco Loko cannot be a “dietary supplement.” According to Ars Technica, Legal Lean is already marketing Coco Loko as a “dietary supplement.”

Incorporated by reference into the § 321 (ff) definition of “dietary supplements” is the requirement that the product be intended for ingestion under 21 U.S.C. § 350 (c)(1)(B). That section requires products be “intended for ingestion in tablet, capsule, powder, softgel, gelcap, or liquid form.” While Coco Loko is a powder, it is unlikely that it is “ingested” in the typical meaning of that term. The statutory provision also provides an alternative definition for items “not intended for ingestion in such a form” that are otherwise “not represented as conventional food and is not represented for use as a sole item of a meal or of the diet.” Both incorporated definitions are predicated on “ingestion,” and Coco Loko’s method of intake is unlikely to fit the plain meaning of “ingestion.”

By analogy, a suppository also bypasses the mouth when they are taken into the body. Even so, suppositories generally go into one end of the alimentary canal—rather than the sinuses or the lungs. Moreover, neither suppositories nor this inhaled chocolate are “ingested.” No less an authority than the Oxford English Dictionary includes a definition of “ingest” that equates ingestion with the introduction of material into the stomach or mouth.

Coco Loko faces an uphill battle getting a “dietary supplement” label given that is probably not “ingested” or intended for ingestion. According to the FDA Law Blog, “FDA has consistently taken the position that articles not intended for ingestion do not qualify as dietary supplements.” In the end, FDA may find that “ingestion” is distinct from insufflation, or the act of breathing something into the body.

Even if Coco Loko is labeled as a “dietary supplement” and met other aspects of the § 321 (ff) definition, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 342 (f), could conceivably find that it presents a “significant or unreasonable risk of illness or injury.” While unlikely, the Secretary has the authority to declare a dietary supplement so unsafe that it poses “an imminent hazard to public health or safety.” That said, do not hold your breath for such a declaration—if you do, it’d be harder to inhale the chocolate.

 

Concluding Thoughts

While the safety and propriety of snorting crystalline chocolate powder through one’s nostrils is up for debate, FDA is hard at work sniffing out the proper regulatory classification of Coco Loko.

My preliminary thought is that Coco Loko might be labeled a “dietary supplement,” given its ingredients. On the other hand, its method of delivery—through the nasal passage—is not one typically seen in dietary supplements and is unlikely to fit the “intended for ingestion” prong of the incorporated statutory definition.

Alternatively, FDA may label the product a “drug,” especially with its “structure or function” claims. Either way, if you think I’m going to go snort chocolate anytime soon—you’re loko.


What’s in that? The Dilemma of Artificial Flavor, Natural Flavor & Artificial Color

Zach Berger, MJLST Executive Editor

By law, most food is required to display nutritional information; if a product bears nutrient content or health messages, it must comply with specific requirements. However, as questioned by J.C. Horvath in volume 13 of MJLST, do these requirements really help consumers? For example, how often do you see “contains artificial flavor” or something similar listed on your groceries? The use of the non-descriptive descriptor phrases such as “artificial flavor,” “natural flavor,” and ‘artificial color” are common on food labels, yet do not help the average consumer. These phrases can substitute for over 3900 different food additives. The difference between artificial and natural flavors is much more technical than meaningful as both contain chemicals. The distinction comes from the source of the chemicals. In reality, there is little difference between the two, as both are made in a laboratory by a trained professional, a “flavorist,” who blends appropriate chemicals together in the right proportions.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does regulate these additives, but once a substance is Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) it may be added to anything without further testing for any unexpected chemical interactions with other ingredients. Examples of ingredients that fall under GRAS[1] range from beef tallow, lard, and gelatin to ambergris a “waxy substance generated in the digestive system of and regurgitated by sperm whales” and Lcystine, “a dough conditioner often derived from duck feathers or human hair.” Basically, these non-descriptive descriptors don’t tell the consumer anything useful, so companies allowed to use these stand-ins?

The Food industry is generally reluctant about releasing all of its ingredients in order to prevent competitors from easily replicating their product. However, “the information that would actually be useful to consumers tends to be categorical information. Things such as whether or not the product conflicts with dietary restrictions or contains artificial hormones or genetically engineered products. The goal of food labeling is clarity for the consumer and the use of the non-descriptive descriptor phrases are anything but clear; for the average consumer, they may as well not even be on the packaging. To make labeling more informative, Horvath recommended “FDA-mandated universal allergen warnings and front-of-pack labels to better educate consumers.” Whatever the solution is, it is time to end the use of non-descriptive descriptors.

[1] 21 C.F.R. 182.1–.99


What’s Shaking? Sodium Warnings Upheld in NYC Restaurants

MJLST Guest Blogger, Tommy Tobin

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

New York’s intermediate appellate court recently upheld a salt shaker. In the February 10, 2017 decision, the court found that New York City could require chain restaurants to mark certain dishes with a “salt shaker” icon, warning consumers that the food contained considerable amounts of salt.

In June 2015, the City issued notice of its intent to require foodservice establishments to warn diners about high salt menu items. After considering over 90 comments and a public hearing, the city adopted its “Sodium Warning” Rule, effective December 1, 2015. In adopting the Rule, the City noted that cardiovascular disease was the leading cause of death in the City and that higher sodium intake was related to increased blood pressure. Further, New York City residents regularly consumed more than the daily recommended amount of sodium and restaurant food was a “primary source” of the salt in New Yorkers’ diets.

The Rule requires chain restaurants—defined as foodservice establishments with 15 or more locations that offered similar menu items—to note food items or meal combinations containing the daily recommended amount of sodium with a specific warning. The warning mandates that a salt shaker icon be placed next to applicable menu items. It also required the following language be displayed at the point of purchase, explaining that the icon “indicates that the sodium (salt) content of this item is higher than the total recommended limit (2300 mg). High sodium intake can increase blood pressure and risk of heart disease and stroke.” The Rule imposes a $200 penalty for non-compliance.

Writing for a unanimous five justice panel, Justice Gesmer ruled against the National Restaurant Association, which had as members more than half the chain restaurants that would be affected by the Rule. The Association challenged the Rule on three grounds, arguing that it violated the separation of powers, was preempted by federal law, and infringed upon its members’ First Amendment rights.

Regarding the separation of powers, the Association argued that City’s health department had exceeded its authority and encroached upon legislative functions in making the Rule. The court was explicit in rejecting the Association’s argument, finding that providing health-related information was the “least intrusive way” to influence citizens’ decision-making. The Rule provided further information to consumers regarding health risks and left it to the diners themselves to decide their dietary choices. The court found that the City has “always regulated” restaurants as necessary to promote public health and did not exceed its authority in adopting this Rule. The court also noted that the same chain restaurants are subject to the City’s calorie content warnings for high-calorie menu items

The Association further argued that the City’s Rule was preempted by federal law, which requires nutrition labeling on grocery store foods. The court rejected this argument as the federal law in question, the Nutritional Labeling and Education Act (NLEA), contained provisions excluding certain warnings and foods from its preemptive effects. Relying on 21 U.S.C. § 343(q) and Second Circuit’s decision in New York State Restaurant Association v. New York City Board of Health, 556 F.3d 114, 124 (2nd Cir. 2009), the court found that the NLEA permits states and localities to establish nutrition labeling for restaurant foods, provided that they are not identical to federal requirements.

The court also examined the appellant’s First Amendment arguments. The Rule would compel commercial speech by placing the salt warnings on menus. Applying the Second Circuit’s New York Restaurant Association, the court examined this compelled commercial speech requirement under a lenient rational basis test. The court found that City’s intended purpose to improve consumer knowledge of potential health risks of salty foods was reasonable. Moreover, the Rule’s applicability only to chain restaurants was not arbitrary or capricious; instead, it was based on health considerations and to facilitate compliance.

The Rule upheld by the court provides advocates new lessons on how to nudge consumers in making point-of-purchase decisions to promote public health. Given the prevalence of cardiovascular disease across the country, additional jurisdictions may consider adopting provisions similar to the “Sodium Warning” Rule. Time will tell how future salt warnings might shake out.

The case is National Restaurant Association v. New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene et al., No. 2629, — N.Y.S.3d —- (N.Y. App. Div. Feb. 10, 2017).


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.


Recalling History with The FDA’s Safety Alerts

MJLST Guest Blogger, Tommy Tobin

[Editor’s Note: MJLST is pleased to welcome back Tommy Tobin for another series on Food and FDA law. This is #1 of 3 in April. You can find his earlier posts here.]

The FDA’s Safety Alerts for Human Medical Products provide insight on how the agency is protecting the American consumer. For example, through the agency’s online list of alerts, consumers are warned against using suppositories that claim that they can cure cancer. Such alerts harken back to the agency’s origins at the turn of the twentieth century.

While Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley is not a household name to most Americans today, his legacy is felt each day in our households. Dr. Wiley spent decades calling for increased protections for consumer safety. His “Poison Squad” experiments pitted healthy young volunteers against food additives to determine the effects on health. With the passage of federal legislation in 1906, the organization that was to become the FDA was on its way to its modern-day role.

One of Wiley’s remarkably prescient articles was his 1914 co-authored piece “Swindled Getting Slim,” which he wrote after leaving government service. Even at that time, Dr. Wiley found that “the whole list of obesity-cures would strain credulity to the breaking point.” Rallying against fakes, frauds, and fad diets, the piece warned the public about purveyors of weight-loss remedies that presented “simple old-time frauds under new names and new auspices, with marvelous scientific explanations of how they do the work.”

One of the products that Dr. Wiley had in his cross-hairs was the titular “Get Slim.” In his article, Wiley wrote that “Pink lemonade costs five cents a glass at the circus, but when you buy it in the form of ‘Get Slim,’ $1 is the price of a ‘twelve days’ dose.’” Not only was “Get Slim” expensive, it was also dangerous. A 1916 issue of Good Housekeeping updated readers about the story:

In the January, 1914 Good Housekeeping was published an article by Dr. Wiley and Anne Lewis Pierce entitled “Swindled Getting Slim.” In it the true character of several so-called obesity-cures was made plain, among them “Get Slim,” manufactured by Jean Downs, of New York City. The demand for “Get Slim” rapidly fell off, and the manufacturer, convinced that Good Housekeeping had caused it by calling her “cure” a fake, brought suit for $50,000. After various delays…the case was brought to trial…December 15th, 1915. Two days were spent in taking testimony, Jean Downs telling how she made the stuff and several chemists and biologists testifying that, if made as she said she made it, it was more dangerous than Dr. Wiley had said. In his charge to the jury Justice Lehman said that a magazine was within its rights in criticizing a preparation offered to the public and that unless they thought the publication of the article was inspired by malice they must find in favor of the defendant. The jury so found. Thus endeth “Get Slim.”

One of the ways the modern-day FDA carries on the work of Dr. Wiley is to warn the public against dangers lurking in their household products. For example, the FDA has issued numerous Safety Alerts against products with undisclosed drug ingredients—including several weight loss products—in recent years.

“Pink Bikini” and “Shorts on the Beach” were capsules marketed by Texas-based Lucy’s Weight Loss System. These weight loss products were the subject of a nationwide recall in 2016 when the FDA found that their ingredients included several active, undisclosed pharmaceutical ingredients. These included Sibutramine, an appetite suppressant withdrawn from the American market years earlier because it created cardiovascular risks, and Phenolphthalein, a known carcinogen which also had been disallowed due to serious health concerns. In its safety alert, the FDA noted that the offending pills should “not be consumed.”

In 2014 alone, the FDA noted over 35 public notices and recalls for products with undeclared drug ingredients. This is in addition to warnings and recalls related to consumer dangers with bacterial contaminations, glass particles, and other issues with dozens of nutritional, drug, and medical device products.

To date this year, the FDA has warned the public that certain injectable products labeled “latex free” contained latex, which could be life-threatening for those with allergies. In addition, the FDA issued a Safety Alert for certain male sexual enhancement supplements, including one with the name XtraHRD, for containing active drug ingredients. Without proper identification, consumers may take such products without knowing they contained drugs.  As such, consumers are advised not to take these capsules and to return any in their possession to the company for a refund. In considering the danger to the public, the Safety Alert noted “Consumers with diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or heart disease often take nitrates. [Erectile dysfunction] is a common problem in men with these conditions, and consumers may seek these types of products to enhance sexual performance.”

Public health and safety is at the core of the FDA’s mission. The FDA’s modern-day efforts toward this mission honor its roots as well as the work of Dr. Wiley and others.


Ensuring Quality And Avoiding Bad Eggs: Food Executives, Food Safety And Criminal Sanctions

MJLST Guest Blogger, Tommy Tobin

[Editor’s Note: This post is last and #4 in a series on current FDA issues. You can find the previous post herehere and here.]

Food can—and all too often does—make people sick. Anyone who has suffered from food-borne illness would be unlikely to want to repeat the experience. The safety of our food relies in large part on compliance with food safety protocols. From Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle to today, the processing and manufacturing of food is rife with stories of poor practices leading to public health problems.

Maintaining the safety of the nation’s food supply is an ongoing challenge for regulators and businesses. The FDA requires that food be processed or produced using good manufacturing practices, or else risk food being labeled “adulterated” as it was produced under “unfit” conditions. Producing food in such a way as to avoid being “contaminated with filth” seems like a worthwhile goal.

Ensuring food safety sometimes means throwing away product, but it can be a matter of life and death. For example, Listeria concerns prompted Blue Bell Ice Cream to remove all of its product from store shelves in 2015. Three deaths were reported from the ice cream. In the midst of its food safety issues, Chipotle closed all locations across the US on February 8, 2016 to focus improving food safety protocols.

What happens when individuals upend the delicate balance of food safety? In the wake of several high-profile trials, food executives charged with food safety violations may be walking on eggshells. As Food Safety News put it, “Not so long ago, errant food industry managers and executives did not have to worry about going to jail. But they do now.”

What changed? In part, peanut butter, cantaloupe, and eggs. These products might seem like an unlikely combination, but these foods—or rather some of the companies behind them—demonstrate the “New Normal” in food safety enforcement.

Taking peanut butter first, a nationwide Salmonella outbreak sickened hundreds of Americans and killed nine. Stewart Parnell, the executive behind the Peanut Corporation of America, approved shipments of peanut butter that his company had tested positive for Salmonella and those that were known to be “partially covered in dust and rat crap.” Instead of jettisoning product for public safety, he instead demanded, over email, that “[expletive deleted], just ship it. I can’t afford to loose [sic] another customer.” According to the Washington Post, prosecutors sought a life sentence, but he was ultimately sentenced for 28 years. One man, quoted by the Post, whose mother had died due to the peanut butter said, “As far as I’m concerned, he’s a murderer.”

As for cantaloupe, Eric and Ryan Jensen—two Colorado brothers—pled guilty to six counts arising from their role in a 2011 Listeria outbreak. According to the FDA, the Jensen brothers knew they were putting the public at risk by not sufficiently washing their produce and maintaining the fruit in “unsanitary conditions.” As a result, the deadly cantaloupes were linked to 147 hospitalizations and 33 deaths. You read that right; 33 lives were ended due to contaminated cantaloupe.

With regard to eggs, the DeCosters of Quality Egg, LLC may have presented the courts with the most significant responsible corporate officer liability ruling in over forty years, according to the venerable FDA Law Blog. Jack DeCoster and his son Peter, the owner and COO of the company, respectively, were sentenced to three month’s imprisonment for their part in food safety outbreaks that caused an estimated 56,000 Americans to fall ill.

As noted in the Eighth Circuit opinion upholding the prison sentence, the company pled guilty to bribing a food safety inspector and introducing misbranded and adulterated eggs into interstate commerce. The opinion details the conditions at Quality Egg’s Iowa operations in August 2010:

The FDA inspected the Quality Egg operations in Iowa from August 12–30, 2010. Investigators discovered live and dead rodents and frogs in the laying areas, feed areas, conveyer belts, and outside the buildings. They also found holes in the walls and baseboards of the feed and laying buildings. The investigators discovered that some rodent traps were broken, and others had dead rodents in them. In one building near the laying hens, manure was found piled to the rafters; it had pushed a screen out of the door which allowed rodents into the building. Investigators also observed employees not wearing or changing protective clothing and not cleaning or sanitizing equipment.

The FDA concluded that Quality Egg had failed to comply with its written plans for biosecurity and salmonella prevention. One government expert reported that “there were minimal to no records from the poultry [ ] barns to indicate that company personnel [had] implemented the written plans [to eliminate salmonella].” The agency also discovered that the company’s eggs tested positive for salmonella at a rate of contamination approximately 39 times higher than the current national rate, and that the contamination had spread throughout all of the Quality Egg facilities. In October 2010 the FDA instructed Quality Egg to euthanize every hen, remove the manure, repair its facilities, and disinfect its barns to prevent the risk of another outbreak.

As responsible corporate officers, the DeCosters pled guilty to misdemeanor violations of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA). In their plea agreements, they stipulated that they “had not known that the eggs were contaminated at the time of shipment, but stipulated that they were in positions of sufficient authority to detect, prevent, and correct the sale of contaminated eggs had they known about the contamination.”

An important question before the Eighth Circuit panel was the requisite knowledge required for imposing criminal penalties, particularly imprisonment, on responsible corporate officials. In the cantaloupe and peanut butter cases reviewed above, each executive knew of food safety violations, but the record in this case did not reveal that the DeCosters had actual knowledge. The three judge DeCoster panel issued a three-opinion ruling, with the majority advancing a concept of responsible corporate officer liability arising from the FDCA and the Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Park, 421 U.S. 658 (1975). Under Park, responsible corporate officials were prosecuted under a lower standard than normally used for criminal cases, whether under theories of negligence or strict liability.

The DeCoster majority noted that the FDCA and Park enabled criminal sanctions for responsible corporate officials for their own failure to prevent or remedy the conditions giving rise to the food safety claim. The judges in the majority agreed that vicarious liability was not applicable here, instead it was the executives’ own duty to be aware of, to prevent, and to address potential violations of the FDCA that gave rise to criminal penalties. Writing in concurrence, Judge Gruender reasoned that the DeCosters “are responsible for their own failures to exercise reasonable care to prevent the introduction of adulterated food.” In the absence of actual knowledge, the DeCoster majority ascribed constructive knowledge to the DeCosters in running their operation. They “knew or should have known” of the unsanitary conditions and failed to address or prevent them.

Writing in dissent, Judge Beam reasoned that the DeCoster’s sentence was inappropriate. Judge Beam would reject negligence as an appropriate standard for corporate officer liability under the FDCA, substituting a mens rea requirement similar to that found elsewhere in criminal law. The dissent noted, “there is no precedent that supports imprisonment without establishing some measure of a guilty mind on the part of these two individuals, and none is established in this case” and that “no person associated with Quality Egg had knowledge of salmonella contamination at any relevant time.”

Given the three-opinion decision, the DeCoster case was appealed for an en banc rehearing within the Eighth Circuit, which was denied in September 2016. Petition for certiorari was filed in January 2017, and the case may make it to the Supreme Court.

Public health requires vigilance, especially on the part of those involved with producing and processing the nation’s food supply. The FDA and other food safety regulators work with businesses to maintain public health and safety. Unfortunately, all too often there are bad eggs whose decisions, or lack of awareness, may put the public at risk. Time will tell whether the Supreme Court weighs in on the proper standard for criminal liability for food safety violations in the wake of several recent high-profile cases.


Genetically Modified Foods And The Consumer Quest For Disclosure

Nicholas Ratkowski, MJLST Staffer

In 2000, the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science, and Technology (MJLST) proudly published its first issue, spanning a variety of issues between Patent Protection of Computer Programs to an analysis of the First Amendment through the lens of Jesse Ventura. One Note addressed how genetically modified foods (GMOs) should be labeled, if at all. In the seventeen years since MJLST’s inception, much has changed – how has the landscape of GMO labeling progressed?

In 2000, the principal argument was whether or not GMOs should be specially labeled as such; the author references unexpected concomitant protein allergies and environmental effects as prime concerns. As of 2000, scientists had not identified any negative effects from consuming GMOs. The Note notes different approaches between Europe and the United States, with the former relying on strict disclosure requirements, and the latter ignoring the issue (for the most part). At the time of authorship, “[m]ore than 4,500 GM plants ha[d] been tested, and at least 40 ha[d] passed government reviews” and “as much as 70% of processed foods contain[ed] GM components. The Note “propose[d] that the most appropriate method of resolving the labeling issue involves developing a new, international, voluntary labeling standard for products that have not been developed through genetic engineering techniques or do not contain genetically engineered ingredients.”

Now to the fun part – has anything changed? The short answer is not really. In 2013, Connecticut became the first state to “successfully enact a law requiring food containing genetically modified ingredients to be labeled as such, though it comes with the unusual requirement that four other states must pass similar legislation.” As of 2017, more than 70 bills across 30 states have been proposed in an effort to require labeling of GMOs. Only two states (Vermont and Maine) have joined Connecticut’s lead in forcing disclosure of genetically modified foods. Maine’s disclosure law requires disclosure, but is subject to a litany of exceptions. Vermont’s seems a bit more stringent, but is also easily circumvented. See §3043(d) and §3044 (for example, “Any processed food that would be subject to subsection 3043(a) of this title solely because it includes one or more materials that have been produced with genetic engineering, provided that the genetically engineered materials in the aggregate do not account for more than 0.9 percent of the total weight of the processed food”).

It is perhaps surprising then that GMOs remain mostly invisible to the average consumer in the United States, considering “[m]ore than 70 percent of Americans say they don’t want genetically modified organisms in their food” and “92 percent of Americans want genetically modified foods to be labeled,” according to a 2014 Consumer Reports survey. I’m not smart enough to tell you whether or not eating GMOs has any effect on health, much less whether that effect would be positive or negative. I can, however, posit a theory to explain this paradox, albeit not a novel one – the Pro-GMO lobby is simply too powerful for states to butt heads with in the courts on the taxpayers’ dime. With Monsanto leading the charge, the pro-GMO lobby has spent tens of millions of dollars to fight state-level labeling initiatives. In 2013, lobbyists spent $9,300,000 to prevent GMO disclosure requirements. In just the first quarter of 2014, lobbyist spent another $9,000,000. How can states compete?

If the U.S. ever makes the policy decision to implement widespread labeling requirements for GMOs, doing so will require federal legislation; states have been shown to lack the resources necessary to fight the purveyors of incomplete information that are GMO lobbyists. On the other hand, would labeling have any discernable effect on consumers? Maybe not, but I believe consumers should have the choice to pick what they eat, and how their food is sourced.


Recent Ninth Circuit Ruling an Important One for State and Local Governments Seeking to Regulate Genetically Modified Plants

Jody Ferris, Note & Comment Editor

Genetically modified plants (GMOs) are and have always been a hot topic in agriculture and food policy.  Since they were first developed, groups have been lobbying at various levels of government to impose regulations on how they are grown or to have them banned outright. A noteworthy decision has come down for those following legal challenges to GMO regulation. In Alika Atay et al. v. County of Maui et al., the Ninth Circuit court in Hawaii has ruled that state and local governments may regulate the production of GMOs in their jurisdictions.

The original suit was filed by GMO proponents after the County of Maui enacted a ban on genetically modified crops.  The court held that federal regulation of GMOs does not preempt state and local regulation after the variety is commercialized. This means that the United States Department of Agriculture holds jurisdiction over all GMO varieties prior to commercialization, which is the period during development and testing before the variety is sold on the market. According to the Ninth Circuit, after the variety is commercialized, however, state and local governments are free to enact regulations, including outright bans of GMO production, without the need to worry about federal preemption.

Interestingly, the county regulations in Hawaii that were at issue in the suit were nonetheless stricken down by the court because the State of Hawaii already has a comprehensive regulatory scheme which the court held to preempt county GMO regulations.  This outcome disappointed local environmental and anti-GMO groups due to their support of the new county level GMO restrictions.  However, the decision will help clarify the respective regulatory responsibilities between individual counties and the State of Hawaii. Despite the disappointment of these groups, the decision that there is no federal preemption on regulation of commercialized GMO varieties is an important one for many of the states in the Ninth Circuit, as there are counties in Washington and California, for example, which have also enacted bans on GMO production.

This decision will likely be an encouraging one for states wishing to enact their own regulations for how GMO varieties are grown and handled.  It is also encouraging for individual counties who wish to enact GMO bans or county level regulations, should state level regulations not be preemptive.  It will certainly be interesting to follow how state and local governments structure any future regulatory activities in light of this ruling.


Food “Hot Off the Printing Press”: Insights into 3-D Printed Food

Theodore Harrington, MJLST Managing Editor

Would you food hot off the 3D printing press? In Jaspers Tran’s article, 3-D Printed Food, he explores the potential legal issues surrounding the commercialization of 3D printed food. (see here).

The article suggests that “. . . the 3D printer may become the fundamental daily appliance in every household . . . .” The pros are easy to see—As the demand for food increases at an exponential rate, the ability to create food quickly and avoid the current environmental impacts caused by food production would be a game-changer. The benefits here are fairly obvious and easy to wrap our heads around. However, large barriers still remain.

A tougher point for me to grasp is Tran’s suggestion that 3D printing will solve issues related to malnutrition, particularly over-nutrition, or obesity. Tran seems to leap from personalized nutritional food (tailored to an individual’s exact nutritional needs) to an obesity solution. This reminds me of the old adage, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”

Even if 3D printers end up in every household, my gut-feeling is that it will be a very long time before people are accepting of the idea of eating food that was just spit out of a machine (although there is a large amount of processing in today’s food, it goes on behind closed doors. Ignorance is bliss.). As Malcolm Gladwell suggests in his book Blink, the way we taste food is as much psychological as it is physical (see example of declining sales in a pork product when a life-like pig was placed on packaging instead of a cartoon pig).

Something to chew on.


The Large Effect of Food Advertising on Children

Zach Berger, MJLST Staffer

The goal of advertising is to persuade consumers to purchase the advertised product. Advertising, as a form of commercial speech, is given considerable legal protection. Despite these protections, and with the rise of obesity in the you of America, advertising has become a topic of debate in the past several decades. As discussed in the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology article Food Advertising and Childhood Obesity: A Call to Action for Proactive Solutions by Roseann B. Termini, Thomas A. Roberto, and Shelby G. Hostetter, many theorists believe food advertising targets children “who are too young an immature to distinguish advertising puffery from truth.” Children have limited cognitive abilities, and assume the advertised food products are healthy. Without government regulation or parental intervention, these children can maintain these misconceptions and carry the unhealthy habits they developed at a young age into adulthood.

Unfortunately, the percentage of obese children has only gone up since the aforementioned article was written. According to a recent study, 20.5% of twelve to nineteen year olds are considered obese in the U.S., as well as 17.7% of children age six to eleven. As mentioned by Termini et al., food advertising can contribute to childhood obesity in several different ways: Time spent watching TV detracts from time that could be engaged in exercise, food advertisements encourage unhealthy choices, food products partnering with TV/movie characters encourages children to buy unhealthy products, and children snack excessively while watching TV. Although some companies have attempted to self-regulate, these attempts are not always successful.

Termini et al. suggested several solutions to limited the damage done to children by unhealthy food advertisements. These included: banning fast-food advertising on child-targeted TV, regulating food advertisements directed at children as well as the companies that produce them, eliminating tax breaks for food advertising, and increasing parental intervention. One such solution was recently reintroduced with the announcement of the Stop Subsidizing Childhood Obesity Act. This law would amend the tax code by eliminating tax deductions for advertising that is directed at children and which promotes unhealthy food and drink. The revenue this law would bring will go towards funding the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program.” As the name states, this program provides fresh fruit and vegetables to all students at participating schools.

Overwhelming evidence suggests that the programs children watch on TV influences their eating habits. Although some of the onus is on the parents to supervise what their children eat, more consistent regulation of food advertising can help reduce childhood obesity. There is still a long way to go, but we need to be proactive if we want to have any chance of halting childhood obesity in its tracks.