In the continuing battle over “all natural” claims, a federal court judge in California tossed a class action suit, challenging Dole’s advertising of frozen berries and fruit cups with the statement “All Natural Fruit,” holding that the label would not be misleading to reasonable consumers.
The 2012 complaint targeted 38 Dole products bearing the “All Natural Fruit” label, arguing that they contained synthetic ingredients. In prior proceedings, the court removed 28 of the products at issue and certified a statewide class of plaintiffs.
For purposes of Dole’s summary judgment motion, plaintiff Chad Brazil’s allegations were limited to 10 of Dole’s food products – such as Dole Mixed Fruit in 100% Fruit Juice cups and Pineapple Tidbits in 100% Pineapple Juice cups – which he claimed were falsely advertised as containing “All Natural Fruit” when they in fact contained ascorbic acid and citric acid.
Granting Dole’s motion, U.S. District Court Judge Lucy H. Koh held that the plaintiff failed to present sufficient evidence that the challenged claims were likely to mislead reasonable consumers and that the label statements were therefore unlawful.
The opinion noted that the Food and Drug Administration has yet to promulgate a regulation defining the word “natural” as it pertains to packaged food, but has adopted an informal definition for the term “as meaning 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 the food.”
The plaintiff failed to offer evidence that the two allegedly synthetic ingredients found in the challenged Dole products “would not normally be expected to be in” those products as the FDA definition requires, the court said, with Brazil declining to provide expert reports or consumer surveys for support. “[A]bsent any evidence that reasonable consumers would not normally expect citric acid and ascorbic acid to be found in the challenged Dole products, Brazil cannot rely on FDA’s informal policy to show that those consumers were likely to have been misled,” the court wrote.
Although Brazil himself testified that he was misled by the “All Natural Fruit” label, his deposition was not enough to carry the case, Judge Koh explained. “‘A few isolated examples of actual deception are insufficient’ to survive summary judgment,” the court said. “Where, as here, a plaintiff offers one isolated example of deception – i.e., Brazil’s – summary judgment must be granted.”
To read the order in Brazil v. Dole Packaged Foods, LLC, click here.
Why it matters: Defendants in the crosshairs of “all natural” consumer class actions can chalk the decision up to a victory for advertisers. Companies have faced a tidal wave of litigation challenging such ad claims, yielding speculation that the term has disappeared from grocery store shelves as well as resulting in multimillion-dollar settlements, such as Naked Juice’s $9 million payout and Ben and Jerry’s $7.5 million deal.