By Rebecca Mayo, J.D.
Riviana Foods, Inc. (Riviana) won its motion to dismiss in the class action suit filed against Riviana for deceptive marketing practices. The Southern District of New York held that it was not misleading for Riviana to use boxes of the same size and shape across various product lines even though not all product lines sold the same net-weight of pasta inside of those boxes. Further, it is not reasonable for a consumer to assume that boxes of similar size and shape would necessarily contain the same net-weight of pasta. (Stewart v. Riviana Foods Inc., September 11, 2017, Roman, N.).
Facts. Riviana is a leading manufacturer and distributor of dry pasta in the United States, including Ronzoni. A consumer, who had purchased Ronzoni products for many years, filed a class action lawsuit against Riviana for engaging in deceptive marketing practices. For decades, Riviana has used a uniform sized box to package Ronzoni pastas at a standard weight of 16 ounces net weight of pasta per box. When Riviana introduced new lines of healthier pasta, they continued to use boxes of the same size and shape, but filled them with approximately 25% less pasta than the traditional product line boxes.
The consumer asserted that these boxes have become ubiquitous in the marketplaces and competitors have packaged their own dry pasta in a box that is substantially of the same size, shape and holds the same volume of dry pasta. Due to the practice of using the same box and same volume of pasta over many decades, she argued that consumers have come to rely on the standard size and standard volume packaging when making purchasing decisions. Therefore, Riviana relied on consumers’ familiarity with its traditional-sized pasta boxes to deceive consumers into thinking that they were purchasing the same quantity of pasta as they always have when they purchase the healthy pasta boxes.
Riviana filed a motion to dismiss arguing that Plaintiff’s state law claims are preempted by the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDC Act) (21 U.S.C. §301 et seq.). Riviana also asserted an affirmative defense under N.Y. GBL § 349(d), which provides a complete defense whenever a challenged act or practice complies with federal rules and regulations.
Preemption. The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) amendment to the FDC Act included a preemption clause prohibiting states from imposing requirements relating to food that subject to exceptions and exemptions are not identical to an applicable federal food labeling standard. The relevant sections of state law prohibit deceptive acts or practices and false advertising in the conduct of any business, trade or commerce. Further, New York law incorporated the standard imposed by the FDC Act by providing that anything that complies with federal law and regulations per se complies with state law. The district court found that the state-law duty that the plaintiff was seeking to enforce did not impose something different from or in addition to what the federal law already requires, but was in fact identical to the federal duty under the FDC Act. Therefore, preemption did not bar plaintiff’s claim.
Failure to state a claim. To state a prima facie claim of fraud under state law, the complaint must show that there was (1) consumer-oriented conduct; (2) that the conduct was materially misleading; and (3) that the consumer suffered injury as a result of the alleged deceptive act or practice. The court found it clear that the sale of Ronzoni pasta constituted "consumer-oriented conduct." The court then turned to the second prong of the test to determine if the conduct was materially misleading, which occurs if it is likely to mislead a reasonable consumer acting reasonably under the circumstances. Additionally, each allegedly misleading statement is viewed in the context of the entire product label or advertisement as a whole. Looking at the packaging of the different lines of Ronzoni pasta, the court noted that there were several distinct features on the boxes of the different product lines. Further, all of the pastas in all of the product lines were sold in a range of net-weight ounces. The court found sufficient differences between the boxes, and within the healthy line of pastas, that the practice, as alleged, is unlikely to mislead consumers. The court held that consumers who expect to receive 16 ounces of healthy pasta solely because she has purchased different Ronzoni pasta products in similarly-sized boxes, is not reasonable. Viewing the content of the label in context, the court found that the plaintiff cannot plausibly state that the alleged practice rendered Ronzoni’s label "false or misleading" to the reasonable consumer, and therefore the claim failed.
The case is No. 16-CV-6157 (NSR).
Attorneys: Joanna Frances Sandolo (Belowich & Walsh LLP) for Melissa Stewart. Jeffrey S. Jacobson (Kelley Drye & Warren, LLP) for Riviana Foods Inc.
Companies: Riviana Foods Inc.
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