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Bohac v. General Mills, Inc.

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

October 10, 2013

SEAN BOHAC, Plaintiff,
v.
GENERAL MILLS, INC., Defendant.

ORDER DENYING MOTION TO STAY Re: Dkt. No. 28

WILLIAM H. ORRICK, District Judge.

INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Sean Bohac brings this putative class action against defendant General Mills, Inc., asserting that the use of the terms "100% NATURAL, " "all natural, " or "natural" on General Mills's "Nature Valley" products (the "products") is deceptive and misleading because of the alleged presence of genetically modified organisms ("GMOs"), as well as high fructose corn syrup ("HFCS"), high maltose corn syrup ("HMCS"), maltodextrin, and other similar ingredients. General Mills moves to stay this case because it argues that the United States Food and Drug Administration ("FDA") has primary jurisdiction over the term "natural" and two judges, including one in this district, have stayed their cases pending a response to a referral to the FDA the question of whether products with bioengineered ingredients may be labeled "natural." General Mills also argues that the Court should exercise its inherent authority to stay this case. After considering the parties' briefs and argument, and for the reasons below, General Mills's Motion to Stay is DENIED.

BACKGROUND

The Complaint alleges the following:

Plaintiff Sean Bohac "purchased several varieties of the Products over the last three or four years at retail prices." Compl. (Dkt. No. 1) ¶ 20. Bohac "relied upon the representation that Nature Valley was 100% NATURAL'" and also "relied upon the name Nature Valley, ' representations such as Natural Energy Bar'... and pastoral' images on the packaging, all of which convey qualities of healthfulness and naturalness to a reasonable consumer." Id. He would not have purchased the products had he known that they "were not, in fact, natural.'" Id.

GMOs are "fundamentally different from naturally existing plants because inserting foreign genes into plant DNA alters the original genes, " which "can yield alternation in the nutritional content of the food, toxic and allergenic effects, poor crop performance, and generations of environmental damage." Id. ¶ 29. "A product that is derived from GMOs is unnatural by definition." Id. ¶ 25. In addition to GMOs, the products also contain "a variety of other heavily processed, unnatural ingredients, " such as HFCS, HMCS, or maltodextrin. Id. ¶ 33.

Even though General Mills knew "GMOs are not natural and that [the products] contain GMOs and other unnatural, highly processed substances, " General Mills "engaged in a widespread marketing and advertising campaign to portray the Products as being natural.'" Id. ¶ 50. General Mills "markets its Products as natural'" largely by placing the term "100% NATURAL' on the front of multi-bar boxes of the granola bar Products, as well as on the back, top, and bottom of the granola bar Product boxes and on the wrappers that contain each individual granola bar." Id. ¶¶ 49 & 52.

While the FDA has not explicitly defined the term "natural, " it "has defined the outer boundaries of the use of the term natural' by stating that a product is not natural if it contains synthetic or artificial ingredients." Id. ¶ 10. According to federal regulations promulgated by the United States Department of Agriculture ("USDA"), an ingredient is synthetic if it is a "substance that is formulated or manufactured by a chemical process or by a process that chemically changes a substance extracted from naturally occurring plant, animal, or mineral sources." Id. ¶ 11 (quoting 7 C.F.R. § 205.2). "Similarly, the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS') defines a natural' product as a product that does not contain any artificial or synthetic ingredients and does not contain any ingredient that is more than minimally processed.'" Id. ¶ 10.

"Consumers frequently rely on food label representations and information in making purchase decisions." Id . ¶ 56. Bohac "reasonably relied to [his] detriment on [General Mills's] misleading representations and omissions. [General Mills's] misleading affirmative statements about the naturalness' of its Products obscured the material facts that [General Mills] failed to disclose about the unnaturalness of its Products." Id. General Mills's "deceptive representations and omissions are material in that a reasonable person would attach importance to such information and would be induced to act upon such information in making purchase decisions." Id. ¶ 57.

Bohac paid for the products, but "did not obtain the full value of the advertised Products due to [General Mills's] misrepresentations and omissions." Id. ¶ 63. Therefore, Bohac "suffered injury in fact and lost money or property as a result of [General Mills's] wrongful conduct." Id.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Bohac brings this putative class action on behalf of "all persons in the United States who purchased [General Mills's] Products [as defined in the Complaint] from October 12, 2006, to the date of certification of the Class." Id. ¶ 64. He brings the following causes of action: (1) violation of the Minnesota Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act, MINN. STAT. §§ 325D.43 et seq.; (2) violation of the California Consumers Legal Remedies Act, CAL. CIV. CODE §§ 1750 et seq.; (3) violation of the California False Advertising Law, CAL. BUS. & PROF. CODE §§ 17500 et seq.; (4) violation of the California Unfair Competition Law, CAL. BUS. & PROF. CODE §§ 17200 et seq.; (5) breach of express warranty; (6) breach of implied warranty of merchantability; (7) breach of implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose; (8) deceit or misrepresentation; and (9) unjust enrichment.

On July 29, 2013, the Court related this case with two others in this district: Janney v. General Mills, Inc ., No. 12-cv-3919, and Rojas v. ...


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