Farm-Raised Salmon Cases: Private Action for Violation of California State Law is Not Preempted by the FDC Act

February 25, 2008

In March 2004, California consumers filed a class action lawsuit against several grocery stores alleging that the stores violated California state law by failing to disclose the presence of the color additives astaxanthin and canthaxanthin in farmed salmon.  The plaintiffs alleged that the lack of the required disclosure of these color additives caused consumers to believe that the salmon was wild salmon.  (Without the color additives, the flesh of farm-raised salmon typically appears grayish.) 

In the trial court, defendants successfully argued that plaintiffs’ action was preempted by Section 310 of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (“FDC Act”) (21. U.S.C. § 337(a)), which states that “proceedings for the enforcement, or to restrain violations, of the [FDC Act] shall be in the name of the United States,” thus excluding private enforcement.  According to the trial court, although the action was for a violation of state law, allowing plaintiffs to proceed would conflict with the congressional intent to preclude private enforcement of the FDC Act.  The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision.  On February 11, 2008, however, the Supreme Court of California reversed the Court of Appeal’s decision and remanded the matter to that court for further proceedings. 

Plaintiffs’ action for deceptive marketing of salmon was predicated on a California Health & Safety Code §§ 110765, 110740.  This state law is effectively the same as the FDC Act provision at 21 U.S.C. § 343(a) and (k), which prohibit the misbranding of any food.  Moreover, the FDC Act, at 21 U.S.C. § 343-1(a)(3), expressly authorizes states to establish their own requirements for disclosing use of color additives provided these requirements are “identical,” i.e., effectively the same, as the FDC Act requirement. 

The California Supreme Court concluded that preventing plaintiffs to bring a private action for violating a state law when the FDC Act authorizes such a state law would constitute an intrusion into state sovereignty.  It ruled that nothing in the text or history of 21 U.S.C. § 343-1 indicates that Congress intended to limit a state in providing legal remedies for the violation of state laws authorized by such section.  Moreover, the Court concluded that the prohibition at 21 U.S.C. § 337(a) of private actions applies only to actions for a violation of the FDC Act.  The Court acknowledged that allowing the present action under a state law identical to the FDC Act might result in actions that FDA would not have taken.  Nevertheless, the Court noted that Congress clearly had considered such potential conflict and concluded that such a potential inconsistency was insufficient reason to preempt a private action for violation of state law. 

By Riëtte van Laack

Categories: Foods