Monday, April 29, 2013

Food Distributor Not Enjoined From Selling Refined Olive Oil as “100% Pure”

This posting was written by Jody Coultas, Editor of CCH Unfair Trade Practices Law.

The federal district court in New York City declined to enjoin food distributor Kangadis Food Inc. from selling refined olive oil labeled as "100% Pure Olive Oil" (North American Olive Oil Association v. Kangadis Food Inc., April 25, 2013, Rakoff, J.). However, the court ordered Kangadis to provide reasonable notice to potential consumers of its past mislabeling.

NAOOA, a trade organization that represents the olive oil industry, filed suit against Kangadis for allegedly falsely and deceptively marketing its olive oil and "100% Pure," when it actually contained an industrially-processed oil produced from olive pits, skins, and pulp called Pomace, in violation of the Lanham Act and New York General Business Law.

Kangadis admitted that its "100% Pure Olive Oil" product contained only olive-Pomace oil. On April 12, the court preliminarily enjoined Kangadis from labeling products containing Pomaceas "100% Pure Olive Oil" and from selling any product containing Pomace without including the ingredient on the label. NAOAA asked the court to enjoin Kangadis from selling 100% refined olive oil as "100% Pure Olive Oil" as Kagadis alleged it currently sold.

In order to obtain a preliminary injunction, the party must show irreparable harm and either a likelihood of success on the merits or sufficiently serous questions going to the merits to make them a fair ground for litigation and a balance of hardships tipping toward the party requesting the injunction.

Irreparable Harm

NAOAA was able to demonstrate that it would suffer irreparable harm absent an injunction, according to the court. Under the Lanham Act, NAOAA needed to show that the parties were competitors in the olive oil market and there was a logical causal connection between the false advertising and its own sales position. The parties were clearly competitors in the olive oil market, and Kangadis’ false marketing of the cheaper Pomace oil as pure olive oil would harm other sellers. The labeling also induced consumers to purchase a lower quality product, which could lead consumers to lose faith in the olive oil market as a whole.

Likelihood of Success on Merits

The court declined to issue the requested injunction because the NAOAA could not show a likelihood of success on the merits of its Lanham Act false advertising claims. It was clear that Kangadis violated federal and state standards by selling refilled oil as "100% Pure Olive Oil." However, NAOAA failed to seek direct enforcement of the standards, which are either nonbinding or unenforceable through a private action. NAOAA also could not show that a reasonable consumer’s understanding of olive oil aligned with the standards. A consumer could view 100% Olive Oil as being silent on whether it was virgin or refined.

Balance of Hardships

There also was a lack of evidence of the balance of hardships to support NAOAA’s New York General Business Law false advertising claims, according to the court. To state a claim, NAOAA had to show that Kangadis’s act was consumer-oriented, material deceptive, and injured NAOAA. Although there was sufficient evidence to litgate whether Kangadis violated the New York law, NAOAA failed to show that the balance of hardships tipped in favor of an injunction. Althougth false advertising may hurt competitors in the market, it was unclear to what extent the market would be harmed.

The court granted NAOAA’s request for a notice to consumers regarding Kangadis’ past mislabeling of products containing Pomace. NAOAA was able to show to show that the labeling claims were literally false and actually misleading to consumers. The balance of hardships and public interest also tipped in favor of an injunction. Therefore, Kangadis was required to provide reasonable notice of its mislabeling.

NAOAA was ordered to post bond in order to adequately compensate Kangadis in the event the injunction was issued in error.

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