Sunflower Seeds and Conflicts Between Federal and State Law

The Constitution states that when federal and state law conflict, federal law controls. This concept, called preemption, is a simple idea but very hard to apply. A recent federal case from California discusses its application to packaged sunflower seeds.

The “David” brand of sunflower seeds are sold in the shell, but the shells are coated with salt and other flavorings; including ranch and nacho. The package instructs consumers to put the seeds in their mouths, crack the shells with their teeth, swallow the kernels, and spit out the shells.

The manufacturer’s nutrition information statement on the package listed only the nutritional content of the kernels, not the coatings or the shells. A consumer filed a class action, arguing that because the shell coatings would be ingested during the process of cracking the shells, California’s consumer protection laws required an accurate statement of the nutritional content of the coatings. The manufacturer argued that federal nutritional labeling laws preempted the state laws. The trial court ruled for the manufacturer and dismissed the case, but the Court of Appeals reversed and sent the case back to the trial court.

The federal law in question prohibits states from enacting labeling requirements that “are not identical” to the federal requirement. An FDA regulation interprets “not identiccal” to mean that the states may not impose new or substantially different nutritional labetling requirements than the federal requirements.

The first question the court considered was exactly what federal law requires in a nutritional label. There are three significant regulations. One requires all items intended for consumption to be considered in the nutritional label. The second identifies sodium as a nutrient to be included. The third excludes shells and other inedible components from the calculation. The manufacturer argued that the shells were to be discarded and therefore not to be counted. The court ruled, however, that the flavored coatings were intended to be consumed, and had to be counted regardless of whether they were applied to shells or kernels.

With this interpretation of the federal law, the court ruled that the plaintiff was arguing for the same requirement under state law. As a result, the state laws were ruled not to have been preempted.

A case such as this one, where the federal law says when a state may or may not enact laws that may or may not conflict with federal law, is the simplest situation in which the preemption concept applies. More difficult are identifying when state and federal laws are so in conflict that they both cannot be enforced, or when the federal law is so comprehensive that an entire issue is completely foreclosed to state regulation.

Preemption shows up in a broad variety of contexts, and it’s sometimes hard to decide when the federal law controls. It’s also sometimes hard to predict when there may even be a federal law that raises an issue. If you think you’re dealing with an issue that looks like it’s treated uniformly from state to state, then there’s a reasonable chance there will be a federal law to look into. If you have questions for a lawyer, and you think there may be a federal law question, ask about it.

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