A federal court in California has denied the motion to dismiss filed by J.M Smucker Co. in a putative class action alleging that it misleads consumers by labeling four of its Crisco® oil products as “All Natural” because they are purportedly made with genetically modified (GM) corn, canola and soy crops and because they are highly processed. Parker v. J.M. Smucker Co., No. 13-690 (U.S. Dist. Ct., N.D. Cal., order entered August 23, 2013).
Finding that the amended complaint met the plausibility pleading standard, the court ruled that the plaintiff had standing to pursue claims as to products she had not purchased because they were sufficiently similar. In the court’s view, “They are all the same kind of product. They all have highly similar labels. Plaintiff alleges the same actionable conduct as to each of them.”
The court also rejected the defendant’s contention that the claims were preempted in light of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) determination that special labels are not required for GM foods. According to the court, the plaintiff did not seek to require that GM foods be labeled differently from non-bioengineered foods; rather, “[u]nder Plaintiff’s theory, Defendant could have simply left ‘All Natural’ off the labels. But because they included the phrase, Plaintiff claims that the labels are misleading. This is not a preempted theory.” The court further noted that “this is not a case in which a plaintiff sued a food producer for not disclosing its use of bioengineered ingredients.”
The court declined to find as a matter of law that reasonable consumers would not be misled by the “All Natural” label and found that the plaintiff had sufficiently stated her state law-based claims. As to the defendant’s argument that the express warranty claim must be dismissed because the “All Natural” label is puffery, the court ruled that an “All Natural” claim “is an affirmative claim about a product’s qualities, and it does not amount to mere puffery because it is not outrageous and generalized.” The court further refused to apply the primary jurisdiction doctrine, observing that FDA has declined to rule on “natural” labeling and noting that “referring the matter to the FDA would do little more than protract matters.”