Archive for the ‘malt beverage’ Category
Last week, a federal court dismissed a putative class-action lawsuit against Diageo, holding that Red Stripe’s labeling and packaging does not, as a matter of law, mislead reasonable consumers into thinking that Red Stripe is made in Jamaica with Jamaican ingredients.
The suit, Dumas et al. v. Diageo PLC et al., began in July 2015, when class-action Plaintiffs alleged that Diageo deceived consumers into believing that Red Stripe is manufactured in Jamaica. Plaintiffs argued that Diageo’s use of the phrases “Jamaican Style Lager” and “The Taste of Jamaica,” incorporation of the Desnoes & Geddes logo, and allusions to the “spirit, rhythm, and pulse of Jamaica,” misled consumers to believe that Red Stripe was a Jamaican Beer.
Chief Judge Barry T. Moskowitz of the United States District Court for the Southern District of California issued the opinion, disagreeing with Plaintiffs, and holding that “no reasonable consumer would be misled into thinking that Red Stripe is made in Jamaica with Jamaican ingredients based on the wording of the packaging and labeling.”
Key to Judge Moskowitz’s decision was the fact that Red Stripe says “Jamaican Style Lager” and “Brewed & Bottled by Red Stripe Beer Company, Latrobe, PA.” Judge Moskowitz concluded that the word “Jamaican” modifies the word “Style” (not “Lager”), and indicates that the product is not from Jamaica. Additionally, Judge Moskowitz concluded that the brewed and bottled by language indicating “Latrobe, PA,” was legible. Judge Moskowitz also concluded that the phrase “The Taste of Jamaica” and the allusions to the “spirit, rhythm, and pulse of Jamaica” were vague and meaningless (i.e., mere puffery), and could not reasonably be relied upon as designations of source.
Regarding the Desnoes & Geddes logo, Judge Moskowitz stated that the “logo itself does not impart information regarding the source of the product.” Judge Moskowitz added, in a footnote, that “the Court doubts that the average consumer would know that the D&G logo is associated with Desnoes & Geddes Limited, the Jamaican brewery, as opposed to, say, Diageo-Guinness.”
Overall, Judge Moskowitz appears to have reached the correct decision. I am, however, skeptical of some of his conclusions. First, regarding the Desnoes & Geddes’s logo, I tend to disagree that the logo “does not impart information regarding the source of the product.” Imparting information regarding the source of a product is the key function of a trademark. Accordingly, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for a consumer to believe that a beer bearing Desnoes & Geddes’s logo (a registered trademark) originates from Desnoes & Geddes in Jamaica.
Second, regarding the brewed and bottled by statement, Judge Moskowitz stated, “It is likely that anyone examining the label carefully enough to read the language on the back of the label would see that the beer is brewed and bottled in Pennsylvania.” I agree that someone examining the back label would understand that the beer is brewed in Pennsylvania, but that’s the problem—the fact that a consumer would have to carefully examine the back label to glean the beer’s true origin suggests that the rest of the labeling and packaging might be misleading.
My two qualms notwithstanding, I believe that this case was correctly decided, based on the “Jamaican Style Lager” language. As Judge Moskowitz noted, consumers are exposed to numerous examples of beers with a geographic indicator modified by the word “style” (Belgian-Style, Cubano-Style), denoting that the beer is not actually made in the geographic location identified.
Plaintiffs have until April 21, 2016, to file an amended complaint, if they so choose.
On March 22, 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed a district court’s dismissal of a putative class action lawsuit against Anheuser-Busch. In In re: Anheuser-Busch Beer Labeling Marketing and Sales Practices Litigation, the Sixth Circuit held that A-B’s compliance with federal regulations governing alcohol content provided A-B with a safe harbor from state-law consumer protection claims. Notably, the court held that the safe harbor applied regardless of whether A-B intentionally overstated the alcohol content of its beer.
The consumer-plaintiffs filed several class-action lawsuits against A-B back in 2013, alleging that A-B intentionally overstated the alcohol content of many of its beers. These class-actions were consolidated into one suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio. A-B moved to dismiss the consolidated action, arguing that its compliance with federal regulations provided it with a safe harbor from the plaintiffs’ claims.
The federal regulation at issue, 27 CFR § 7.71(c)(1), provides in relevant part, “[f]or malt beverages containing 0.5 percent or more alcohol by volume, a tolerance of 0.3 percent will be permitted, either above or below the stated percentage of alcohol.” The plaintiffs argued that the regulation should only apply to accidental deviations, not to intentional overstatements of alcohol content. A-B countered that the regulation does not discriminate based on intent, and that because the actual alcohol content of each of its beers was within the permitted range, it was in compliance with the regulation. The issue boiled down to a question of regulatory construction.
The district court agreed with A-B’s interpretation, noting that nothing in the regulation distinguished between intentional and unintentional deviations in alcohol content, and holding that the regulation creates a safe harbor for a brewery that does not exceed the tolerance range. The district court held that because the actual alcohol content of A-B’s beers was within the permitted tolerance range, the plaintiffs could not allege that A-B’s alcohol content statements were misleading.
On appeal, the plaintiffs reasserted their argument that the regulation’s text and purpose support an interpretation that only allows unintentional variations. The Sixth Circuit was unpersuaded, and affirmed the district court’s dismissal. The Sixth Circuit noted that nothing in the text of the regulation implies any distinction based on the motive of the manufacturer. Importantly, the Sixth Circuit noted that other TTB regulations contain explicit intent-based exceptions. For example, 27 CFR § 27.42a sets a tolerance range for carbon-dioxide levels in wine, and states, “Such tolerance will not be allowed where it is found that the limitation is…intentionally exceeded” (emphasis added). The absence of a similar exception in the malt beverage regulation, the Sixth Circuit noted, supports a conclusion that no such exception was intended.
Finally, the Sixth Circuit concluded that interpreting the regulation to allow intentional overstatements of alcohol content that are within the tolerance level neither conflicts with the general prohibition against misleading statements nor subverts the purpose of the regulatory scheme as a whole. The Sixth Circuit noted that it could reconcile any conflict by concluding that “the ATF [sic] determined that such small variances are not misleading to consumers.”
The Sixth Circuit’s decision in In re: Anheuser-Busch is yet another example of a federal court applying the safe harbor doctrine to activity that is expressly permitted by the plain language of a federal regulation. Just last October, in Parent v. MillerCoors LLC, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California held that the safe harbor insulated MillerCoors from consumer allegations that its use of “Blue Moon Brewing Co.” on Blue Moon labels was misleading. The regulation at issue in Parent expressly permitted a company to use its trade name on labels.
The Sixth Circuit’s decision also confirms a noticeable trend in judicial treatment of TTB approval of statements on alcohol beverage labels: Where federal regulations expressly permit such statements, TTB approval provides a safe harbor. By contrast, where federal regulations are silent regarding particular statements, TTB approval may not provide a safe harbor. This latter proposition is perhaps best demonstrated by the various “handmade” lawsuits (most notably those involving Tito’s “Handmade” Vodka), in which courts are divided on whether the safe harbor applies to TTB approval of terms like “handmade.”
A few months ago, big law firm Foley Hoag compiled a marvelous list of trademark scuffles, within the alcohol beverage category, during the past year. We already knew there were scores of tussles, and the list was growing ever longer, but we never quite realized how fast the casualties are stacking up. The article shows at least 50 such disputes.
Of all those, the Atlas dispute is the one that caught my eye. Because it’s local, must be crushing news for whoever lost, recent, and I had not heard about it but for the Foley article. Foley explained:
The Atlas Brewing Company of Chicago opposed Atlas Brew Works’ application to register ATLAS for beer. The Opposer alleged that “Atlas” was primarily descriptive of a geographic area within Washington D.C., which is where the Applicant is located (“Atlas” is apparently an unofficial nickname of the H Street District). The TTAB rejected this argument, finding that consumers were unlikely to make the connection. The TTAB agreed with the Opposer that there was a likelihood of confusion between the marks, but it found that the Applicant was the senior user (the TTAB did not accept the launch dates of the Opposer’s Twitter and Facebook accounts as establishing priority). The petition was dismissed. Atlas Brewing Company, LLC v. Atlas Brew Works LLC.
Upon reading the opinion, my main takeaway is that the Washington, D.C. brewer tried earnestly and in good faith to find a good brand name, but still had to contend with this expensive dispute. First, they tried VOLSTEAD but House Spirits Distillery shut that down. The Atlas tale and the Foley article further underscore the need to do no less than look around, Google it, conduct a thorough trademark search, engage a specialized lawyer, check TESS, check TTB’s Public COLA Registry, and check LabelVision, when selecting a brand name in a crowded sector. There is not much sign that either party did a particularly good job of scoping out the things that ought to be scoped out, before putting so much sweat and money into a brand, especially since it is getting so clear that disputes are common. In any event, because the Chicago brewer’s opposition was dismissed by the TTAB, it looks like the Washington brewer can shrug this off and move forward with ATLAS as their brand name.
I normally like The Wall Street Journal but wow a recent editorial about “The Craft Beer Cops” was a letdown. I am not sure it is even worthy of a college newspaper, or one of the Journal’s interns. I don’t see any new points and I certainly don’t see any ideas for how to more properly regulate the industry. It has the feel of Trumpism; a few guys said it’s bad, and that becomes sufficient evidence that it’s a yuge disaster. I don’t want to paste the whole editorial because it’s behind a paywall, so I tried to repeat only the worst half, as below within the block quotes.
You might think of a microbrewery as a home for free spirits who grow long beards, take their dogs to work, and make their own rules. But Washington won’t let them. …
This seems a dumb place to start. Does anyone really think each brewer should do entirely as they wish? I doubt it. So it’s really a question of which rules are good, not whether. Not to mention that there is plenty of evidence that many of the brewers like the rules and helped shape them.
Mr. Bush had recently bumped into Erik Olsen of New Hampshire’s Kelsen Brewing Company, who told him that competing in this industry requires a license from the U.S. Treasury that Mr. Bush says goes back to Prohibition days. …
Fantastic. One data point, based on bumping into one person. Is the licensing scheme bad just because it goes back a few generations?
[TTB] says its application process is …” You know, in case they might be Al Capone.
This seems particularly lazy and suggests that just because the bearded gents might not tote machine guns, that they are all angels. Also, I thought Al Capone was a spirits guy (not a Chardonnay or Dunkel guy). Then again, maybe he did dabble in Dunkel.
Brewers have to go back to the feds to get approval for each new label. … He adds that the agency “has to approve our plans before we can start using the new expansion space for brewing.” This can take six months or more.
This I agree with more. If the government wants to have at least one hand on the steering wheel, they should put up the resources to do so properly.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich got an earful on the same subject when he recently visited New Hampshire’s Henniker Brewing. The [rules] even covers font sizes. [Henniker] was forced to stop calling its old-fashioned porter “soothing” because regulators claimed it suggested a medical benefit.
Are font rules really so onerous, especially in that TTB more or less made this a low priority a few years back? What’s the point of mandatory labeling if it’s smaller than readable? Even if you think “soothing” should be allowed, if you think all words should be allowed, you probably just have a bad imagination.
This kind of nonsensical regulation could drive anyone to drink, and it’s one more reason we have a 2% growth economy.
This is the dumbest point of all. Despite all the rules, the Journal may have picked the single worst industry in the land, to make its point about stunted growth. Is any industry growing faster than craft beer?
Another lawsuit. On Tuesday, a Massachusetts consumer filed suit against Guinness, alleging deceptive labeling and marketing. This is yet another in the long series of nationwide class action lawsuits stalking the alcohol beverage industry in the past 15 months, since the initial Tito’s suits. The case is O’Hara v. Diageo-Guinness, filed in federal court. Just four days earlier, a New York City man filed suit against Foster’s Beer similarly.
The Guinness complaint says the company “represents that all Extra Stout sold in the North America is brewed in Ireland at the historic St. James’s Gate Brewery in Dublin.”
This, however, would seem to be an extra stout assertion, because new lawyer Frank and I walked over to a beer store today. The store had Guinness in various sizes and shapes, but all of the packaging seemed to show the origin clearly. Most clearly said brewed in Ireland; some (such as above) clearly said BREWED IN CANADA. We did not see any packages that made the origin hard to divine. Things may be different up in Massachusetts but nonetheless, this would seem to drastically limit the size of any class and any damages. With all the Guinness on display at the local store, clearly showing product of Ireland, and labels like this, we don’t see how the plaintiff could possibly be right in asserting “Extra Stout is not manufactured, brewed, bottled and/or imported from Ireland.” Does anyone else see a conflict between the photo above and this?: “Extra Stout’s outer packaging does not mention, reference and/or indicate that Extra Stout is manufactured, brewed, bottled and/or imported from Canada. … Extra Stout’s label only contains one small print disclosure on the back label of the bottle acknowledging that Extra Stout is actually brewed and bottled in New Brunswick, Canada.”
The plaintiff fares better when challenging the second of these assertions, from the Guinness website (click to enlarge):
Even if the second FAQ is wrong, it looks to be simply a mistake. It would be tough to avoid any such mistake in view of the other FAQ, showing that the product is made in almost 50 countries and needs to comply with the laws of “well over 100.” It looks like the plaintiffs are in for some tough sledding.