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Animal Legal Defense Fund v. Hormel Foods Corp.

In a series of print, web, and video advertisements, Hormel Foods Corporation has touted its “Natural Choice” line of lunch meats and bacon as a “clean” and “honest” alternative to other deli meats—one held to “higher standards” and without any added “preservatives.” The Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) challenged these assertions from Hormel’s advertising campaign, arguing that they violate the false-advertising prohibition of the DC Consumer Protection Procedures Act. Through this action, ALDF sought to vindicate consumers’ “enforceable right to truthful information from merchants about consumer goods and services”—including information provided in advertising campaigns.

The DC Superior Court held that ALDF’s challenges to product claims made in print, web, and video advertisements were impliedly preempted by the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) and Poultry Production and Inspection Act (PPIA), two federal laws that give the United States Department of Agriculture authority over meat labeling. Although the PPIA and FMIA do not give the agency authority over advertising, the Superior Court nonetheless found that the plaintiff’s claims posed an “obstacle” to the federal government’s system of labeling oversight.

On appeal, Public Citizen filed an amicus brief to address the Superior Court’s preemption ruling. The brief explained that holding meat producers accountable under the state law for misleading statements in advertising would not interfere with the federal government’s regulatory authority or decisions approving labels because labeling and advertising are distinct. For this reason, courts have generally concluded that a variety of federal laws creating labeling oversight do not preempt unfair trade practices claims related to advertising. Likewise, in this case, the brief explained, ALDF’s false advertising claims pose no obstacle to the objectives of the FMIA and PPIA. Agreeing with our position, the court held, on September 2, 2021, that federal labeling laws do not preempt ALDF’s claims, which challenged Hormel’s advertisements, not the product labels.