Like several California courts before it, a recent Missouri federal court case reminds food manufacturers that they must carefully monitor the marketing claims made on the front of their products’ labeling packages regardless of whether an ingredient list is included on the packaging.
In Thornton v. Pinnacle Food Groups LLC, the Court denied a motion to dismiss putative class action claims where the plaintiff alleged that a label describing a manufacturer’s muffin mix contained false and misleading statements about the product’s ingredients. The plaintiff alleged that she purchased Duncan Hines Simple Mornings Blueberry Streusel Premium Muffin Mix labeled as containing “Nothing Artificial”, and that the Muffin Mix contained monocalcium phosphate and xanthum gum, which were artificial, synthetic substances. Thus, the plaintiff claimed, the “Nothing Artificial” statement was false, deceptive, and misleading.
In seeking dismissal of the suit, Pinnacle argued that the plaintiff could not have been deceived by the purportedly misleading statement because it contained an ingredient list disclosing the product’s ingredients. The Court rejected the “ingredient list” defense, finding it plausible that a consumer could rely on the “Nothing Artificial” representation without looking at the product’s ingredients list. In the same vein, the Court also found the plaintiff’s allegations of harm sufficient where she alleged that the product she purchased had less value then it would have had without the “artificial” ingredients. Finally, the Court also held that the plaintiff’s fraud claims satisfied Rule 9(b)’s heightened pleading requirements for fraud because it identified the who, what, where, when, and how of the purported fraud.
Going forward, the plaintiff will need to obtain class certification, a threshold that has tripped up most plaintiffs in these types of cases. However, this case serves as an example that food manufacturers must pay close attention to the statements made on the front of their packaging, even where a product’s ingredients are fully disclosed on the back of the packaging.