This week was ruff for a group of pet owners whose putative mislabeling class action against Champion Petfoods USA, Inc. was unanimously rejected by the Tenth Circuit. In Renfro v. Champion Petfoods USA, Inc., No. 20-1274 (10th Cir. Feb. 15, 2022), the Tenth Circuit affirmed dismissal of the plaintiffs’ claims alleging affirmative misrepresentations and omissions about the quality and/or ingredients of Champion’s dog food. In so affirming, the Tenth Circuit held that general statements like “Trusted Everywhere” and “Biologically Appropriate” would not deceive or mislead reasonable consumers.
First, the Court addressed the phrases “Trusted Everywhere” and “Ingredients We Love [From] People We Trust.” Plaintiffs argued the phrases meant that Champion had a specific testing regime for ensuring quality ingredients. The Tenth Circuit rejected that argument as implausible because the packaging made no claims about Champion’s testing regimes, and the subjective phrases were not falsifiable. “No reasonable consumer would have concluded these ‘vague generalities’ were anything other than boilerplate statements of opinion,” the Court held.
Second, the Court affirmed the district court’s holding that references to “Fresh and Regional” ingredients and similar language were “inherently subjective ideals,” rather than empirically verifiable claims. The Tenth Circuit reasoned that the plaintiffs did not allege what amount of regional and fresh ingredients a consumer would expect from such statements. The Court further held that the listed ingredients “belie any understanding that the food is entirely fresh by listing non-fresh and non-regional ingredients.”
Third, the Court considered plaintiffs’ claim that the statement “Biologically Appropriate” is misleading, which was premised on their allegation that some pet food Champion sold in 2018 may have contained a minor contaminated ingredient. The Court agreed with the district court that the plaintiffs lacked standing to state this claim because they did not allege that they purchased any of the dog food in question. For the plaintiffs’ more general argument that “Biologically Appropriate” did not accurately reflect the quality of the pet food ingredients, the Court concluded that this statement, too, constituted unverifiable puffery because no reasonable consumer could interpret the phrase to mean anything measurable about the ingredients beyond that the product was fit for dog consumption.
In a legal landscape that has been fraught with attempts to dissect every general phrase companies use on food-related products, this holding serves as an important reminder of the legal limits of such misrepresentation claims.