In an action that could affect enforcement of the nation's new food labeling rules, a federal judge on Friday granted a temporary reprieve to manufacturers of soft drink cans.
Citing "the serious nature of the issues raised" by the canners, U.S. District Judge Stanley Sporkin issued an order in Washington barring the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from enforcing its rules against can manufacturers until a May 16 court hearing.
The labeling rules take effect for the rest of the food industry on Sunday.
Although the order is limited to can manufacturers, it could force the FDA to delay across-the-board enforcement of the rules.
"If they were to apply the rules to other industries, they would just be inviting them to file lawsuits and get exemptions for themselves," said Michael Kershow, attorney for the Can Manufacturers Institute, which won the temporary restraining order. "The FDA might think it is best to apply the ruling broadly while the order is in force."
An FDA spokesman could not be reached for comment.
The can manufacturers, arguing the labeling rules have saddled them with millions of dollars worth of useless inventory, want enforcement of the rules postponed until the end of the year.
Beginning Sunday, food manufacturers must provide specific nutritional information on food packages. Manufacturers must also adhere to strict definitions of such nutritional buzzwords as "light" and "low fat." Many foods already have these labels.
The can manufacturers said they are not prepared to meet the Sunday deadline because the FDA misled them about how the rules would be enforced.
The dispute centers on the timing of the FDA's so-called "labeled and filled" test. On March 31, the agency said that any package filled after May 8 must have the new nutrition label.
Canners said that until the March 31 rule was issued, FDA officials had led them to believe that the old-label packages could be produced up to May 8, and filled afterward.
"We've amassed a sizable inventory of cans not yet filled with beverages," Kershow said.