All Natural? See You In Court

Food labels play an important role in the consumer food choices.  Consumers trust labels such as “organic” or “all natural” and surveys show that these terms are broadly associated with good health and nutrition.  But while “organic” has standards backing the label, “all natural” or its variants does not.  And while companies want consumers to believe that their “all natural” foods are chemical-free, healthy and nutritious choices, the ingredients may tell a different story.

As consumer awareness of the importance of healthy-eating grew, some of the biggest food brands attempted to embrace the trend by green-washing their marketing messages, while often doing little to improve their products.  As a result, what we see is a spate of truth in labeling litigation across the country and giant food conglomerates, including ConAgra Foods, PepsiCo, Heinz, General Mills, and Chobani, are finding themselves defending their labeling language and images in court.

There are at least 25 recent new cases involving these food giants and we already reported on some of them where the companies allegedly used misleading labels on foods containing genetically modified ingredients.

For example, CongAgra’s line of Wesson cooking oil is facing two class actions from consumer groups over its “100% Natural” label when, as plaintiffs claim, the oil is made from genetically engineered plants.  PepsiCo’s Frito-lay faced a similar lawsuit last year for its use of the words “All Natural” in its SunChip line of products when instead, as plaintiffs claimed, they are made from genetically engineered ingredient.

More recently, Chobani found itself defending a class action case over its use of the words “All Natural Ingredients” and “Only Natural Ingredients” on labels in many flavors of its Greek yogurt, when many of the labeled products contain artificial ingredients, including artificial flavorings, coloring, and chemical preservatives.

Chobani lawsuit also complains that words “evaporated cane juice” are used to describe sugar as ingredient on the nutritional labels.  The words appear despite draft guidance issued by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) back in 2009 advising companies against using this term to describe sugar because it is highly misleading. “FDA’s current policy is that sweeteners derived from sugar cane syrup should not be declared as ‘evaporated cane juice’ because that term falsely suggests that the sweeteners are juice.”

Two California women sued General Mills complaining that its “natural” Nature Valley products are not natural because they contain highly processed ingredients, such as high fructose corn syrup, high maltose corn syrup, and maltodextrin (also a highly processed sweet ingredient used for food texture).  That’s contrary to the pervasive all-natural and healthy images permeating product packaging and the company’s marketing materials.

As the New York Times reported recently, many of these lawsuits were started by lawyers who have received big payouts after having been involved in Big Tobacco litigation.  It’s natural to ask whether these labeling lawsuits are in public interest or are only acts of self-interested lawyers. And there is little doubt that the litigators stand to gain handsomely if they are successful. But is there more at stake?

There is not much empathy in our culture for lawyers and it’s easy for many companies to dismiss truth in labeling cases as money makers for some of them.  According to New York Times, “[i]f the lawsuits prove successful, the liability could be sizable. The lawyers are looking to base damages on products’ sales,” which could be in the billions.

What the New York Times failed to mention is that long before Big Tobacco lawyers got involved individual consumers and consumer groups have clamored for truth in labeling. Potentially deceptive, misleading, and false language on food packaging may harm consumers, especially as our nation is suffering from many health problems linked to obesity. So, while some seek motives behind lawsuits, let’s not forget the broader policy questions that are raised by these cases, questions which are finally making their way into national discourse.