Vimbai Chikomo Dec. 22, 2015, 9:39am


SAN FRANCISCO (Legal Newsline) - A national milk producers group is disappointed with a federal judge's recent decision to dismiss a class-action lawsuit against Trader Joe's over its use of the term "soymilk."

On Dec. 1, Judge Vince Chhabria granted a motion to dismiss the complaint filed against Trader Joe’s by Amy Gitson,, alleging that Trader Joe’s use of the term “soymilk” on products that do not contain cow’s milk violated several California consumer protection laws.

In his decision, Judge Chhabria stated that “it is implausible that the use of the word ‘soymilk’ misleads any consumer into believing the product comes from a cow.”

For years the National Milk Producers Federation has encouraged the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to take a tougher stance on the use of the word “milk” on labels describing products that contain the plant-based imitation of cow’s milk.

President and CEO of National Milk Producers Federation Jim Mulhern weighed in on the judge’s decision to dismiss the claim without prejudice.

“Given the lack of action from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in enforcing existing standards of identity, the court’s decision is disappointing but not surprising,” Mulhern said.

“The economic deception practiced by marketers of fake milk has been going on for some time. Despite a federal standard of identity which requires the presence of real milk in products purporting to be milk, FDA has not enforced the standard of identity with respect to these imitation products."

Soymilk, a plant-based beverage made from grinding soaked soy beans in water, first entered the U.S. market in 1979, and became heavily marketed and consumed as a healthy alternative to cow’s milk, and other animal-based milk.

The judge stated that because soymilk is widely known to be an alternative to cow’s milk, a reasonable consumer would not assume that two distinct products would have the same nutritional value.

According to the complaint, Gitson alleged that the word “soymilk” misled consumers to either believe that the products actually contained cow’s milk, or that the products provided nutritional content similar to cow’s milk, and that a "soymilk" product "purports to be or is represented as" a food that has been given a "standard of identity" by FDA regulations.

Chhabria held that although milk is a food that the FDA has standardized, the fact that the FDA has standardized milk “does not categorically preclude a company from giving any food product a name that includes the word ‘milk’.”

The judge found that Trader Joe's did not attempt to pass off products describes as "soymilk" as the food that the FDA has standardized as milk.

“Unfortunately, consumers who purchase these products thinking they are nutritionally equivalent to real milk may only come to find that they frequently don’t have the same levels of protein, vitamins, calcium and other nutrients found in real cow’s milk. The judge’s decision does not help correct that situation,” Mulhern said.

In its motion to dismiss the claims based on undisclosed additives in products the plaintiffs had not purchased, Trader Joe’s’ request was granted in part and denied in part. Chhabria ruled that the plaintiffs’ would be allowed to proceed with the claim only with respect to the additives the plaintiffs complained about in the purchased products. Those products were tocopherols, sodium citrate, and citric acid.

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