The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to review a class action lawsuit against Conagra over the labeling of vegetable oil made with genetically engineered crops.
Food manufacturers had watched the case closely due to the many class action cases over labeling in recent years, growing from fewer than 20 to more than 400 in a decade.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit claim that Conagra misled consumers by labeling its Wesson brand of cooking oils as “100% Natural” even though they’re made from genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
Earlier this year, the lawsuit was certified as a class action by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which means Conagra is potentially liable to the millions of consumers who bought its cooking oils.
According to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the huge financial exposure created by class action certification coerces companies to settle lawsuits that are frivolous.
Conagra claims the lawsuit over GMO cooking oil shouldn’t have been certified as a class action because it’s impossible to efficiently identify the enormous number of people who’ve bought the product.
In reality, the court will have to trust the word of millions of alleged buyers who generally don’t keep receipts for minor purchases, the company said.
Food manufacturers argued it’s necessary for the Supreme Court to resolve the question about identifying class members because federal appellate courts disagree on the issue.
The 2nd Circuit, 3th Circuit, 4th Circuit and 11th Circuit all require that people can feasibly be verified as belonging in the class. The 9th Circuit, 6th Circuit and 7th Circuit don’t have such an “ascertainability” test.
These conflicting interpretations weaken the uniformity of food labeling rules set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, since food companies face disparate legal risks in different parts of the country, according to GMA.
Roughly two-thirds of food labeling cases are filed in California, where the federal courts are effectively supplanting the FDA as label regulators, the group argued.
The attorneys who are suing Conagra urged the Supreme Court not to take up the case, arguing it’s premature to reject a class action based on potential challenges with claims administration.
Blocking such class actions would basically allow food manufacturers to “commit wide-scale, but low value, harm to individual consumers with impunity,” they said in a court brief.
Federal appellate courts are likely to resolve their differing views on “ascertainability” on their own as they digest a 2016 Supreme Court decision on class action lawsuits, the attorneys said.