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A Case About Sunflower Seeds; Adjust Expectations Accordingly.

By William Peacock, Esq. on February 21, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

We can't beat Judge Silverman's summary of the case, so we'll stick with the direct quote:

"Some days we are called upon to consider such profound issues as eleventh-hour death penalty appeals, catastrophic threats to the environment, intense and existential questions of civil and human rights, and the most complicated, controversial problems in civil, criminal and administrative law. Today we consider the coating on sunflower seeds."

Yes, this is a class-action lawsuit over the coating on sunflower seeds, and whether the sodium in the coating must be disclosed on the product's nutrition label.

Majority: Coating Isn't the Shell

The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act established the ubiquitous nutrition facts label, and requires the disclosure of the amount of sodium "in each serving size or other unit of measure." 21 U.S.C. § 343(q)(1)(D). However, a federal regulation provides that the amount of sodium is "based on only the edible portion of food, and not bone, seed, shell, or other inedible components." 21 C.F.R. § 101.12(a)(6)

So, is the salty crap on the outside of the shell part and parcel with the shell itself, or is it separate, edible, and required to be included on the label?

The plaintiff argues that the coating is meant to be ingested, quoting the packaging, "Crack the shell with your teeth, eat the seed, and spit the shell. Experienced seeders pop a handful of seeds in their mouth and store them in one cheek, then transfer a seed over to the other side with their tongue, cracking it, then eat the seed and split [sic] the shell."

The majority of the panel agreed, noting that the coatings come in a variety of flavors, including ranch and nacho.

Dissent: It's the Shell

Judge Vinson wasn't convinced. In his dissent, he argued that "[i]t is undisputed that the sunflower seed shells at issue in this case are inedible," and "[a]lthough we might prefer a regulation that includes the shell's absorbed salt and to draw a distinction between edible 'coating' and an inedible shell, we are nonetheless bound to apply this unambiguous regulation objectively as it has been written."

Reversed and Remanded

The majority reversed the lower court's opinion and remanded the case. In refusing to address ConAgra's argument that no reasonable consumer would be deceived by the labeling because the label mentions kernels, not salty shells, the court noted that this was an issue of fact to be decided by the court on remand.

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