Wave of Class Action Lawsuits Alleging Deceptive Labeling of ‘Vanilla’ Products May be Coming to an End
As of a January 19, 2021 order dismissing false advertising claims against Topco Associates LLC’s ‘Vanilla Almond Milk’, district court judges in the Southern District of New York have now rejected, as a matter of law, five cases attempting to claim that the word “vanilla” on food labeling falsely communicates to a reasonable consumer that the flavor of the respective ice cream and beverage products at issue derives entirely from real vanilla. In each case, the court found it irrelevant that the product may perhaps not comply with the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) “complex” labeling regulations implementing the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA), finding “no extrinsic evidence that the perceptions of ordinary consumers align with these various labeling standards.”
As we have reported, a court in the Northern District of California, on December 1, 2020, granted a motion to dismiss in a similar case, involving Westbrae Natural, Inc.’s organic unsweetened vanilla soymilk. In addition to making the same arguments as in the other ‘vanilla’ cases, the plaintiff in Westbrae offered a 2020 survey showing that 69.5% of 400 consumers believed that “vanilla” on the label meant that the soymilk’s flavor comes exclusively from the vanilla bean, but the court found that this survey alone does not satisfy the reasonable consumer test.
In a January 19, 2021 motion to dismiss, Trader Joe’s Company cites to the Westbrae decision for precedent and argues that reasonable consumers understand that “vanilla,” in the context of labeling for its ‘Vanilla Almond Clusters’ breakfast cereal, describes the product’s flavor, not its ingredients. The grocery chain also notes that the plaintiff’s counsel, Spencer Sheehan, has filed 110 lawsuits over vanilla flavoring in 18 months, and further suggests that Mr. Sheehan rushed the Trader Joe’s lawsuit in an attempt to get ahead of dismissals in the “virtually identical” New York cases.
Based on the relevant court rulings, the Trader Joe’s lawsuit and others, including a proposed class action filed in California in September against McDonald’s vanilla ice cream, could be the last in a spate of class action lawsuits alleging deceptive and misleading labels on vanilla products.