By California litigators Tom Woods and Melissa Jones

Consumer class action plaintiffs remain very active in California, with cases continuing to be filed against food manufacturers and suppliers regarding alleged misleading labeling and marketing claims. Just this week, plaintiffs filed a class action lawsuit against Trader Joe’s alleging that it falsely advertised and sold cookies and apple juice as “All-Natural” even though the products contained synthetic ingredients. In the past few months alone, several other large companies have been sued over allegedly false “All Natural” claims in lawsuits involving ice cream, juice, granolas, energy bars, and cereal. In the same time period, other class actions have been filed in California regarding the marketing of products that are made from genetically modified plants and grains, such as cooking oil.

These actions are most commonly brought under California’s unfair competition law (referred to as the “UCL” or § 17200 of the California Business and Professions Code). The problem for companies sued under California’s UCL is that it is difficult to get claims dismissed at an early stage. Lawsuits frequently survive the pleading stage because claims are evaluated from a subjective, and not objective, standard. Cases are allowed to proceed even though only one plaintiff establishes standing to sue by showing they actually relied on a company’s statement. Finally, preemption defenses are frequently inapplicable.

Companies should get proactive in light of this litigation trend, which isn’t going away, and examine their labels to minimize the risk of litigation. Those that have been sued should consider creative ways to address these class actions by developing and preserving constitutional challenges. Despite recent California cases making it easier for plaintiffs to maintain their lawsuits at an early stage, aggressive discovery may prevent plaintiffs from certifying the proposed class.