Kroger Co., Safeway Inc. and six other grocery store chains must face consumer lawsuits alleging that they sold farm-raised salmon that was artifically colored, the California Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The justices unanimously overturned lower court rulings that threw out deceptive-marketing lawsuits over the fish. Consumers say the naturally grayish farmed salmon is colored with synthetic versions of natural pigments found in the diet of wild fish.
The suits say the use of color additives should be disclosed on the package's label. The companies counter that federal law doesn't require such disclosures and that Food and Drug Administration labeling rules precluded lawsuits based on state-law claims.
The chains' argument that states can't allow consumers to sue over state-law violations "has no support" under California law, the justices said in their 27-page decision.
Rex Heinke, a Washington lawyer representing Kroger, Safeway and other chains, said the retailers were considering asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the ruling.
Cincinnati-based Kroger owns Ralphs and Food4Less. Pleasanton, Calif.-based Safeway owns Safeway and Vons.
Lawyers for the consumers said there were at least seven cases over the salmon dispute that have been consolidated in state court in Los Angeles.
"The court correctly allowed California citizens to sue to protect their rights to receive adequate information about the food they eat," said Craig Spiegel, a lawyer representing consumers.
Other grocery chains facing the suits include Costco Wholesale Corp., Albertsons Inc. and SuperValu. Eden Prairie, Minn.-based SuperValu owns Albertsons stores in California.
"In the feed there's coloring added, and that's on all our labels and has been for a long time," said Craig Wilson, a spokesman for Issaquah, Wash.-based Costco.
Consumers contend that by coloring the salmon, the grocery chains are trying to pass off farm-raised fish as wild fish, which sell at higher prices. They also contend that the artificial coloring agents pose a health risk.