For the past few years, there has been a steady, if not increasing, stream of class action lawsuits filed against various food and beverage manufacturers and retailers alleging misbranding and false advertising due to the presence of “All Natural” claims. The companies sued in these cases range from major manufacturers and retailers to small private label suppliers. Typically, these consumer class actions typically allege that the products are falsely marketed as “natural” because they contain synthetic, artificial or processed ingredients. Products that bear an “All Natural” claim but contain ingredients anywhere from ascorbic acid (vitamin C) to zinc oxide have been challenged on false advertising grounds.
In light of the risk of litigation around the use of “All Natural” claims, some companies have begun reassessing statements and claims on their product labels and are taking a new approach to their marketing and advertising. One such company is PepsiCo. Recently, the company changed its “Simply Natural” line of Frito-Lay chips to just “Simply,” and its “Natural Quaker Granola” is now marketed as “Simply Quaker Granola.” Other large food companies, like Ben & Jerry’s, Breyers, and Campbell Soup Company, have also dropped the word “natural” from its new packaging.
However, replacing the word “natural” with a word like “simply” may not necessarily be a safe harbor. In 2003, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to take regulatory action to prohibit The J.M. Smucker Company from making deceptive and misleading labeling claims that misrepresent the amount of fruit in Smucker’s “Simply 100% Fruit” spreadable fruit products. CSPI argued that the products contained more fruit syrup than fruit and that the syrups were actually made from apple and pineapple juice rather than the fruit named on the principal display panel.
In order to stave off litigation, food and beverage companies should carefully evaluate the claims of their product labels. For instance, is it worth the risk to use the work “natural” in product labeling and advertising? According to Stoel Rives attorney Melissa Jones, a trial lawyer who frequently counsels food and beverage companies faced with “All Natural” false advertising claims, it might not be. Melissa writes:
Although a few of the “All Natural” class action lawsuits have been dismissed at an early stage of the litigation, most courts have been unwilling to grant motions to dismiss entire cases and at least some of the claims usually proceed to further litigation or are resolved through settlement. The expense to companies that are sued in these cases is, not surprisingly, substantial, with settlements requiring payments of several million dollars.
That said, the alternative to “natural” labeling, such as the use of a word like “simply,” might not be litigation-proof either. Companies should conduct an intensive review of product ingredients to ensure compliance with labeling regulations and determine whether the ingredients and labeling claims are likely to result in an unwanted lawsuit.