Appeals court dismisses Larkspur man's child labor suit against Mars Inc.

SAN FRANCISCO (BCN) A federal appeals court in San Francisco has rejected a bid by a Larkspur man to force Mars Inc. to state on its candy labels that some of the chocolate in its candy may result from child labor in East Africa.

Virginia-based Mars uses chocolate in M&Ms and Mars, Snickers, Milky Way and 3 Musketeers candy bars.

Robert Hodsdon sued the company in federal court in San Francisco in 2015. He claimed three California consumer protection laws require Mars to disclose on its labels the possible use of child or slave labor in harvesting cocoa beans in Ivory Coast. 

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday unanimously ruled that while slave labor is "clearly immoral," the consumer laws did not require disclosure on labels because the alleged labor practices do not result in a product defect or safety hazard.

The court upheld a federal district judge's dismissal of the case.

Circuit Judge A. Wallace Tashima wrote for the appeals panel, "We hold that the manufacturers do not have a duty to disclose the labor practices in question, even though they are reprehensible, because they are not physical defects that affect the central function of the chocolate products."

Tashima also wrote, "The alleged lack of disclosure about the existence of slave labor in the supply chain is not a physical defect at all, much less one related to the chocolate's function as chocolate."

The appeals court noted that the International Labor Organization has called some cocoa harvesting in Ivory Coast "the worst forms of child labor," and the U.S. Department of Labor has said some children there are working under "conditions of forced labor" after being kidnapped, sold by their parents to traffickers or falling victim to traffickers. 

But it said Hodsdon could not use the state consumer laws as a vehicle for claiming violations of United Nations and International Labor Organization policies against slave and child labor.

"There is not a close enough nexus between the policy at issue-here a policy against certain labor practices-and the challenged action-here not placing disclosures on consumer labels," Wallace wrote. 

The three consumer protection laws Hodsdon unsuccessfully sought to invoke are California Consumers Legal Remedies Act, Unfair Competition Act and False Advertising Act.

He said in his lawsuit, which he sought to have certified as a class action on behalf of all consumers, that he would not have bought the chocolate or would have paid less if he knew that child or slave labor was in the supply chain.

Mars Inc. said in a statement today it was pleased with the decision.

"We have never condoned the use of forced labor-or any human rights abuses-in our supply chain and continue to combat this disturbing and complex problem working with international organizations, governments and non-governmental organizations," the statement said.

"But Mars believes that consumer class action litigation does not aid the concerted efforts to eradicate these practices because it offers no solution to the underlying human rights issues," the company said. 

A lawyer for Hodsdon was not immediately available for comment.