Litigation: Defending food labeling lawsuits—are you hungry for more?

Firms defending food and beverage manufacturers have a lucrative future in store

As people become more health conscious and healthy food and beverage choices become more abundant, so do fraud and consumer protection lawsuits questioning just how "natural" the product really is. The buzz words "all natural" have become a key selling point for many food manufacturers and a sticking point for several of them as well, as consumers have begun to file suit, arguing that the product label has misrepresented the true composition of product ingredients and their touted health benefits. While most of these lawsuits are class actions filed in California and New Jersey, both of which have favorable consumer protection statutes, courts across the country are beginning to see a host of suits claiming as false or misleading product that has been labeled, marketed or otherwise promoted as "natural."

More specifically, plaintiffs argue that the manufacturer's labeling or marketing of certain products as "natural" is a misrepresentation that misleads the consumer into believing the product does not contain unnatural ingredients, such as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), trans fat, artificial preservatives or other items that do not occur in "nature." The causes of action seen most often include deceptive trade practices, fraud and breach of express warranties. Alleged damages stem from the premium price some manufacturers charge for a "natural" product.

Even without additional consumer protection laws that may be forthcoming, lawsuits already abound over "natural" terms used to promote various food and beverage products, particularly if the product contains genetically engineered ingredients. The reach of "all natural" labeling lawsuits is not limited to the food industry, and soon we may see similar allegations in other product arenas. The concept could extend well into a wide range of beauty products, including creams, lotions, shampoos, and many other face and body products. Consider the following recently filed complaints: 

  • (D. Colo.) - class action complaint alleging Pepperidge Farm "mistakenly or misleadingly represented that its Cheddar Goldfish crackers . . . are 'Natural,' when in fact, they are not, because they contain Genetically Modified Organisms ('GMOs') in the form of soy and/or soy derivatives";
  • (D. N.J.) - class action complaint alleging Johnson & Johnson advertised its Aveeno Baby Wash and Shampoo and Baby Calming Comfort Bath "natural oat formula" products as all-natural when they include several synthetic chemicals;
  • (N. D. Cal.) - class action complaint alleging General Mills Inc.'s Green Giant 100 percent Natural Valley Fresh Steamers frozen vegetables are not, in fact, 100 percent natural; and
  • (N.D. Cal.) - class action complaint alleging AriZona Beverage Co. misrepresented its iced tea as all-natural because it contained high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and citric acid.

Other examples include a suit against General Mills Inc. alleging its Nature Valley granola bars are not 100 percent natural because they contain GMOs. Similar allegations have been made against Campbell Soup Inc. based on its use of GMOs in various soups. Food giant ConAgra Foods is fighting lawsuits alleging deceptive and misleading labeling because their PAM cooking spray, Wesson cooking oil, Hunt's canned tomatoes and Swiss Miss cocoa are labeled "100% Natural," even though they allegedly contained petrochemicals, synthetic chemicals and artificial ingredients.

Contributing Author

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C. Meade Hartfield

C. Meade Hartfield is an attorney with Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC, with offices in Birmingham, Alabama, and Jackson, Mississippi. She concentrates...

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