Although California’s Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act, better known as Proposition 37, failed earlier this month when put to a vote, food companies still remain vulnerable to attacks over the use of genetically engineered ingredients in their products.
Specifically, it appears that marketing a food as “all natural” when it contains a genetically engineered (GE) ingredient continues to generate class action litigation. The latest lawsuit challenging the use of the word “natural” on a product label was filed by plaintiff Sonya Bolerjack on November 6, 2012 in U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado against Pepperidge Farm, Inc. The class action complaint alleges that the company “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.” In particular, the plaintiff asserts that the product is not natural due to the presence of soybean oil.
The plaintiff claims that Pepperidge Farm violated Colorado’s Consumer Protection Act by engaging in deceptive trade practices; breached express warranties including that the product is natural even though it contains GMOs; and negligently misrepresented to the public through its packaging and labeling that the product is natural even though it contains GMOs.
In bringing this class action suit, the plaintiff is seeking certification on behalf of a class defined in the complaint as “all United States persons who have purchased Pepperidge Farm Cheddar Goldfish crackers containing Soybean Oil, for personal use, during the period extending from November 6, 2008, through and to the filing date of this Complaint.” Currently, a decision as to whether to grant or deny an order certifying that the action may be maintained as a class action is pending.
These class action lawsuits involving challenges to the use of “natural” or “all natural” language on a product label have been both costly and damaging to reputation. It also appears likely that they will continue. In order to avoid litigation, companies should review their products and labeling for synthetic preservatives or artificial ingredients included in or added to the food, so that product labeling is accurate.
A few months ago, I wrote about a $1.2 billion defamation lawsuit filed by Beef Products, Inc. (BPI), a South Dakota-based meat processor, against ABC News Inc. found here. The most recent development in the case occurred on October 31 when lawyers for ABC filed a motion to dismiss.
In September, BPI, along with Technology, Inc. and Freezing Machines, Inc., collectively filed suit against American Broadcasting Companies Inc., ABC News Inc., ABC news anchor Diane Sawyer and ABC correspondents Jim Avila and David Kerley in Circuit Court in Union County, South Dakota claiming that ABC’s news coverage of lean finely textured beef (LFTB), or what became infamously known by the nickname “pink slime,” was defamatory and ultimately devastating for the company’s reputation and business. Since being filed, the case has been removed (PDF) to the U.S. District Court for the District of South Dakota. The complaint also named as defendants Gerald Zirnstein, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) microbiologist who called the product “pink slime,” Carl Custer, former federal food scientist, and Kit Foshee, a former BPI quality assurance manager who was interviewed by ABC.
Earlier this year, on March 7, 2012, ABC began reporting during its World News program that much of the ground beef we buy at the supermarket contains the product that the industry calls LFTB and others call “pink slime.” Over the next month, ABC continued to report on the story, both online and on its television news programs.
In its later complaint, BPI alleged that the news agency, in reporting on LFTB, had knowingly and intentionally published false and disparaging statements regarding BPI and its product and improperly interfered with BPI’s business relationships. BPI argued that the statements made by ABC were not only inconsistent with information provided to them by BPI but were also contradictory to the findings of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), food safety organizations, and many beef industry experts. BPI claimed that ABC’s news reports constituted common law defamation, product disparagement, and tortious interference. In addition, BPI alleged a cause of action under South Dakota’s statutory Agricultural Food Products Disparagement Act (AFPDA).
Most recently, on October 31, 2012, lawyers for ABC News submitted a motion to dismiss BPI’s lawsuit (PDF). In its memorandum in support of the motion to dismiss, ABC asserts that none of BPI’s claims are viable. Specifically, ABC argues that BPI cannot state a claim under South Dakota’s AFPDA, because that law only authorizes an action for statements that question the safety of a product. ABC claims that it did not question the safety of the product as BPI claims, but instead stated that LFTB is safe to eat.
Secondly, ABC maintains that BPI cannot state a claim for product disparagement because “any such claim is preempted by AFPDA, and because the ABC News reports would not be actionable under traditional common law standards in any event.” For instance, ABC explains:
[R]eporting that critics call LFTB pink slime is not actionable: that term, while unflattering, does not convey false facts about the color or texture of LFTB and is precisely the kind of “imaginative expression” and “rhetorical hyperbole” that is constitutionally protected. And the ABC News reports cannot reasonably be understood to imply that LFTB is “not safe for public consumption” or “not nutritious.” The reports repeatedly state that LFTB is “safe to eat,” though “not as nutritious as ground beef” a viewpoint BPI does not challenge. BPI’s other claims are based on quibbles with specific language that do not affect the “substance” or “gist” of the reports.
Lastly, ABC states that BPI’s claims of libel and of tortious interference with business relationships both fail. A decision on the motion is currently pending.
The International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) is taking aim at an advertising campaign for Eco Canteen stainless steel water bottles, claiming the ads wrongly suggest that plastic water bottles are unhealthy and unsafe.
In a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, IBWA claims that Eco Canteen’s television ads and content on various Eco Canteen websites deceive the public into believing that single-serve and reusable plastic water bottles constitute a safety and health risk to consumers. Among other things, IBWA’s lawsuit alleges that some of Eco Canteen’s ads have:
- Improperly linked plastic water bottles to breast and prostate cancer and stated that plastic water bottles “could be poisoning you and your family”;
- Matched images of single-serve plastic water bottles with Eco Canteen’s claims “relating to an organic compound called Bisphenol A (BPA) with the intent to confuse consumers into believing that single-serve bottles also contain BPA even though they do not”;
- Conveyed false and misleading information regarding the alleged health risks of BPA; and
- Suggested that exposing certain water bottles to warm temperatures can lead to leaching of chemicals.
IBWA brings two claims against Eco Canteen: (i) a false advertising claim under the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1125; and (ii) an unfair competition claim under North Carolina law. A copy of the complaint (including exhibits showing some of the Eco Canteen ads about which IBWA complains) is available here.