Los Angeles, California

HomeCaliforniaLos Angeles

Email Shehnaz Bhujwala Shehnaz Bhujwala on LinkedIn Shehnaz Bhujwala on Twitter Shehnaz Bhujwala on Facebook
Shehnaz Bhujwala
Shehnaz Bhujwala
Contributor •

CA Consumers May Sue Grocery Stores to Enforce State Labeling Laws

Comments Off

Last week, California’s Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a federal food labeling law does not preclude California citizens from using state consumer laws to enforce an identical state labeling law. The High Court’s ruling means consumers may sue grocery store chains to enforce a state law requiring labeling of dyes added to farm-raised salmon.

Do you recall a time in the not-too distant past when salmon was touted by experts as a superfood? With its high Omega-3 fatty acid content and myriad benefits for the heart, brain function and cellular renewal, salmon was the veritable darling of restaurants in the early 2000s, with US restaurants reporting record sales of salmon entrees by customers.

Then came a few cautionary reports about farm-raised salmon, raising public concern over the toxins and dyes found within the fish. Environmental groups also warned about overfishing of wild species and its effects on the environment. More recently, consumers have learned about the excessive mercury levels in many different types of seafood, including salmon; the NRDC and other respected organizations have issued advisories to consumers, asking us to limit our consumption of certain types of seafood, including salmon.

Navigating seafood options has truly become an extraordinary feat, but as always, our choices are better and a little easier with the right information. The U.S. Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and California’s Sherman Food, Drug and Cosmetic Law both require labeling of artificial dyes used in food. This is fantastic consumer protection in theory, but what about practice? Many grocery store chains allegedly fail to label farm-raised salmon to inform consumers of the dyes added to the fish. Clearly, these laws must be adhered to and enforced in order to be effective!

Thankfully, a recent Supreme Court ruling will enable California consumers to sue grocery store chains to enforce compliance under California law. The High Court issued its ruling in San Francisco last week in a case consolidating lawsuits filed by individual consumers in Los Angeles, Alameda and Monterey counties to require grocery chains to label farm-raised salmon as containing dyes. The lawsuits allege that two petrochemical-based dyes, astaxanthin and canthaxanthin, are added to farm-raised salmon to make it appear the same pink color as wild salmon. Without the dyes, plaintiffs’ have alleged, the farm-raised salmon would be grayish in color. The lack of pink coloring in farm-raised salmon may also indicate lowered Omega 3 fatty acid content.

The decision overturns prior rulings in which a Los Angeles Superior Court trial judge and the state Court of Appeal in Los Angeles declared the lawsuits violated federal preemption laws. In the opinion, Justice Carlos Moreno wrote that the federal labeling measure explicitly allows states to pass identical state laws. He said there is no indication in the U.S. law that Congress “intended to limit the scope of remedies states might choose to provide for violations of those laws.”

Kevin Golden, a lawyer with the Center for Food Safety in San Francisco, told CBS News: “[T]he decision means citizens have a right to know what’s in their food and sends a strong message that California citizens can enforce state food safety laws as a matter of state law.” The food safety group filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting plaintiffs in the case. Craig Spiegel, a lawyer for the consumer plaintiffs, said his clients don’t want to ingest the chemical dyes and said, “People have the right to determine whether to put artificial dyes in their bodies.”

Another friend-of-the-court brief supporting the consumer plaintiffs was filed by the Los Angeles city attorney and the district attorneys of 12 counties, including Alameda, Marin, Monterey, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Solano and Sonoma counties.