Coauthored by Claire Mitchell and Thomas Woods:

California federal courts now appear positioned to lead the way nationally on the issue of whether food products containing genetically modified ingredients, commonly referred to as “GMOs” can be labeled “All Natural.” Just last week a federal judge in Colorado stayed the case of Nicole Van Atta v. General Mills, Inc. (Case No. 12-cv-02815-MSK-MJW) (PDF), pending the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) input on this very issue recently sought from the agency by a California judge in the case of Cox v. Gruma Corp. (Case No. 12-CV-6502 YGR) (PDF).  

California, a hotbed of consumer litigation activity due to the state’s expansive consumer protection laws, has become a particularly common venue for consumer class actions alleging misbranding and false advertising regarding the use of “All Natural” claims. In particular, many cases have been filed challenging a manufacturer or retailer’s use of “All Natural” labels on products containing GMOs. These lawsuits are typically brought under California’s unfair competition and false advertising laws (referred to as the “UCL” and “FAL” or §§ 17200 and 17500 of the California Business and Professions Code).

Cox v. Gruma Corp. (“Cox”), the case that lead to the Colorado court’s stay, is a class action lawsuit filed in December 2012 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California against Gruma Corporation, the manufacturer of Mission® Tortilla chips. The complaint in Cox alleges that the product’s labeling is false and misleading because it claims to be “All Natural” when it is not in fact natural due to the involvement of genetically modified corn seed in the product’s manufacture.

In Cox, U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers issued a final order dated July 11, 2013 (PDF) that stayed the class action for six months and referred to the FDA for an administrative determination the precise question of whether a food product containing GMO ingredients may be labeled “All Natural.” In making her decision, Judge Rogers agreed with plaintiffs’ argument that “a gaping hole in the current regulatory landscape for ‘natural’ claims and GMOs” exists. Accordingly, relying on the primary jurisdiction doctrine, Judge Rogers explained that a court may stay proceedings or even dismiss a complaint without prejudice where the claims involve “an issue of first impression or a particularly complicated issue Congress has committed to a regulatory agency.” Clark v. Time Warner Cable, 523 F. 3d 1110, 1114 (9th Cir. 2008). Based on the nature of the claims in this lawsuit, Judge Rogers concluded that “[u]nder these circumstances, deference to the FDA’s regulatory authority is the appropriate course.”

Many, including the plaintiffs, were surprised by this order based on the fact that, more recently, judges handling similar cases in California have refused to apply the primary jurisdiction doctrine to dismiss or stay matters. The plaintiffs object to the stay order. They argue that FDA has repeatedly declined to define the term “natural” when asked to do so, and there is no reason to suspect it should address the issue now differently now. Specifically, in 2010, a New Jersey federal court judge stayed a food-labeling suit against Hornell Brewing Co. Inc. and ordered FDA to address whether products that contain high-fructose corn syrup may be labeled “natural.” In a September 2010 letter responding to the court (PDF), Michael Landa, Acting Director of Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) at the time, wrote that FDA was declining to provide such a determination.

It is unclear how FDA will respond to the recent order issued in Cox v. Gruma Corp., however, it is undeniable that there is mounting pressure on the agency to act. Although the Cox plaintiffs are correct that FDA has declined to issue formal rules concerning what is and is not “natural,” courts appear to recognize that something this time “feels” different. Perhaps this is because FDA and courts are undeniably more cognizant of the need for resolution of this issue in the context of GMO-containing products given voter interest on the issue throughout 2012, recent Congressional pressure in the form of letters to the agency requesting action on GMO labeling, and several court orders now staying litigation specifically on the issue of whether GMO-containing foods can be labeled “All Natural.” 

While it is not expected that the FDA will issue a formal rule in response to recent court orders, it is expected that FDA will respond in some form six months from now in a manner that will tell us whether it will, or will not, issue formal rules or updated guidance on this issue in the reasonably near future. For certain, it will be interesting to see how the Court in Cox formally deals with this issue six months from now and how that case impacts litigation throughout the country.  

Stoel Rives attorneys will continue to track this case and other similar “All Natural” cases as developments occur. Check back here for updates.