Over the past several years, a wave of lawsuits has swept through courts across the country, culminating in one controversial question: when can food companies legally label their products as “natural”?
Our staff at ClassAction.org noticed the trend of food labeling suits, and we thought it would only be natural to gather them all into one convenient page.
As the months rolled on, we added new lawsuits to the page and updated the older suits to keep consumers informed about how the cases were fairing in court. By now, the majority of these lawsuits have been either settled or been dismissed, which means it’s time to take a step back and see what we can learn from them.
Upon closer inspection, we discovered that all but one of the cases we covered that found resolution between 2008 and 2014 ended in settlements, while almost all the more recent decisions ended in dismissals. This begs the question: why did a successful crop of lawsuits suddenly become fruitless?
“Natural” Suits: What Happened?
Lawsuits can succeed or fail for several reasons, so we dug through the data we’ve gathered to pose some theories about what happened in court.
It seems we weren’t the only ones who noticed the rise in “all natural” lawsuits. We covered nine cases that were filed between 2008 and 2011. In 2012, at least 15 new lawsuits were filed. By the end of 2014, 38 more were added to that number. As companies began writing checks, lawyers may have grasped at an opportunity for a quick settlement and filed suit against other manufacturers, hoping they could take advantage of the growing trend. Their hopes were dashed, however, when courts began to dismiss their cases.
As more and more suits were filed, the claims became increasingly far-fetched. At the beginning of the trend, the defendants in these suits were companies that branded themselves as “natural” or “wholesome” companies, and whose products one could reasonably expect to be free of synthetic and genetically modified ingredients. As the trend continued, however, attorneys began taking cases against just about any company that claimed one of its products was “natural,” regardless of the company’s overall image. As a result, it was more difficult for plaintiffs to claim that they were reasonably deceived by a “false” label. For example, suing Kashi for allegedly slipping GMOs into its Go Lean Crunch cereal may be easier than arguing that a reasonable consumer would have never suspected Smucker’s Crisco cooking oils to contain GMOs.
Just have a look at some examples of suits that settled within the past three years:
- FlaxMilk, Good Karma Foods – settled in September 2016
- Stevia in the Raw, Cumberland Packaging Corp – settled in April 2016
- Go Lean Crunch, Kashi Company – settled in June 2015
- At-home Smoothie Kits, Jamba Juice Company – settled in December 2014
- Nature Valley Granola Bars, General Mills – settled in November 2014
- Truvia, Cargill, Inc. – settled in November 2014
- Kettle Brand TIAS chips, Diamond Packaged Foods, Inc. – settled in October 2014
- Granola Bars/Granola/Trail Mix/Cookies, Bear Naked Inc. – settled in September 2014
- Flaxmilk, Flax USA, Inc. – settled in August 2014
- Popchips, Popchips Inc. – settled in February 2014
Did the FDA Have Anything to Say?
In short, no.
A possible contributor to the dismissal of cases is the FDA’s refusal to define the word “natural.” As the cases rolled in, courts began looking to the government agency for guidance. Several citizen petitions and numerous court requests for a “natural” definition finally persuaded the FDA to respond. In November 2015, the agency asked consumers to submit their comments about the definition. The comments period closed in May 2016, but after a year-long wait, it appears that the conversation is over. The FDA does continue to offer the following vague guidance on its website as a consolation prize:
“Although the FDA has not engaged in rulemaking to establish a formal definition for the term ‘natural,’ we do have a longstanding policy concerning the use of ‘natural’ in human food labeling. The FDA has considered the term ‘natural’ to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.”
What is normally expected to be in a food dubbed “natural”? Without the FDA’s help, the argument is dumped back into courtrooms. Lacking a formal definition of the term, it becomes much more difficult for plaintiffs to prove that the defendants’ product labeling would mislead a reasonable consumer.
So, What Are the Ingredients for Success?
Despite the obstacles, there have been some settlements in recent years. The cases that settled were generally the ones that had the best arguments. To be more specific, the plaintiffs in the successful cases accomplished the following:
- They adequately proved that they, along with class members, were damaged by the natural claims because they paid a higher price for a product that was not actually worth more than its competitors’ products.
- They argued that they were reasonably deceived because they should have expected a natural product from a natural company.
- They successfully defined a class of consumers who were similarly harmed.
- They fairly calculated the amount of damages to be paid.
Though the courts have not yet established formal guidelines for the use of “natural” on food labels, we can look to successful suits to act as trailblazers on the road to settlements.
What’s Next for Natural Label Suits?
The flurry of food labeling suits seems to have died down since courts began dismissing cases in 2014. Perhaps consumers and attorneys alike have grown hesitant to file suit after the dust settled and the lawsuits didn’t. Perhaps they’ve dropped their arguments in discouragement after watching battles be fought and realizing that only the strong were left standing.
Despite the decreasing number of new cases, however, there remains much to be seen in the world of natural food litigation. Of the 73 suits on our Natural Foods page, 26 of them are still active. While some consumers have given up the fight, there are others who remain adamant about the accurate labeling of food products and their right to make informed decisions about their food.
The most recent case we added to our page was filed this month by a non-profit organization called Beyond Pesticides that says its goal is to “work with allies in protecting public health and the environment to lead the transition to a world free of toxic pesticides.” Rather than demanding monetary damages, the group is seeking injunctive relief, requiring the defendants (Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, Inc. and Mott’s LLP) to change the labeling of their “natural” applesauce that allegedly contains a pesticide. Additionally, the suit – if successful – will direct the defendants to surrender all the profits they made from selling the applesauce and deposit them into a community fund that will be used to educate people on the purported dangers of the pesticide and raise consumer awareness.
Using this case as an example, one may theorize that the courts have weeded out those who whipped up a weak argument to score some cash, and have tended the good fruit – the suits filed by consumers who are fighting for a cause they believe in. Will these suits finally establish a definition of the word “natural”? Will new guidelines be set for how food companies can label their products? Could the suits lead to more companies actually removing the offending ingredients from their “natural” foods? These questions may remain unanswered for years to come, but it’s only natural to hope for quick results.