We have been covering plaintiffs’ war against countless food and beverage products bearing “natural” labels for years. These cases have been frustrating at times, like when the FDA declined to clarify what “natural” means (see my related post here) and when we have seen incomprehensible inconsistencies from one court to the next, even within the same jurisdiction. One of the cases that I wrote about back in June (see here) is now back in the spotlight; this time, it is much better news for the defense bar.
My June blog post about Brazil v. Dole Packaged Foods noted the difficulties in reconciling that court’s order certifying a class of consumers with another court’s dismissal of plaintiffs’ claims in Astiana v. Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, especially since both cases were pending in the Northern District of California. In Brazil, the plaintiff alleged that certain fruit products were improperly labeled as containing “all natural fruit” because the liquid the fruit was in contained synthetic citric and ascorbic acid. In Astiana, plaintiffs claimed that some Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavors were mislabeled and falsely promoted as “all natural” since they contained synthetically alkalized cocoa. It did not seem to make any sense that the Brazilclass was certified while the Astiana plaintiffs had their claims dismissed.
But now the world makes a little more sense. Since June, the Brazil court decertified the class as to damages and was allowing plaintiffs to proceed only as a class for injunctive relief. And, just this week, the court granted Dole’s motion for summary judgment, concluding that: “there is insufficient evidence that the ‘All Natural Fruit’ label statement on the challenged Dole products was likely to mislead reasonable consumers and that the label statements were therefore unlawful on that basis.” Order at 6.
The court explained that the plaintiff’s claims under California’s Unfair Competition Law, False Advertising Law, and Consumers Legal Remedies Act were subject to the reasonable consumer standard which requires plaintiffs to produce evidence that a significant portion of consumers, acting reasonably in the circumstances, could be misled. Order at 8. The court found that the plaintiff, who only presented evidence that he was misled by Dole’s label, had not presented enough evidence to create a genuine dispute of material fact and therefore could not survive summary judgment. Id. at 8-9. The plaintiff tried to avoid summary judgment by arguing that, in the Ninth Circuit, plaintiffs are not required to present surveys or expert testimony regarding consumer expectations to survive summary judgment. While the court agreed with the plaintiff that such proof is not required, it pointed out that the Ninth Circuit does require plaintiffs to present more than a few examples of deception. Id. at 8, 11. Here, with just one example of deception, the court granted Dole’s motion and dismissed the plaintiff’s claims.
While Dole had to expend a lot of resources defending these claims, it is nice to write about once-frustrating “natural” case that has a happy ending (unless you are a consumer that bought fruit in juice and thinks that “all natural fruit” refers not only to the fruit chunks, but also to the liquid in the package). Let’s consider it an early holiday present to defendant manufacturers hauled into the “natural” war.