In the latest consumer class action alleging false “natural” claims, a federal court judge in New Jersey ruled that Tropicana Products cannot avoid an action asserting that the company’s claim that “Tropicana Pure Premium is 100% pure and natural juice” is false and misleading.

The complaint alleges that the juice is actually “pasteurized, deaerated, stripped of flavor and aroma, and stored for long periods of time before available to the public, and colored and flavored before being packaged.” Seven plaintiffs argued that long-term storage of the product and the addition of chemically engineered “flavor packs” derived from sources other than those used to make the juice deviated from Tropicana’s natural claims.

In addition to the “100% pure and natural” label, the container featured an image of an orange pierced by a straw, and the Tropicana Web site made statements about consumers receiving “the freshest, most delicious straight-from-the-orange taste.” The plaintiffs alleged violations of various state consumer protection laws, as well as unjust enrichment and breach of warranty.

Tropicana sought to dismiss the suit on preemption grounds, claiming that an express preemption provision in the Nutrition Labeling Education Act prevented the plaintiffs’ suit. It also maintained that the Food and Drug Administration has established standards regulating pasteurized orange juice. Under these regulations, Tropicana is only required to label its juice as “pasteurized” – a requirement it fulfilled, the company said.

In rebuttal, the plaintiffs said their state law claims fell outside the NLEA’s preemption provision. Tropicana adds flavor packs to the juice, which constitute ingredients that the company failed to list, making its labeling inaccurate, incomplete, and false, they told the court.

The court agreed.

“Tropicana has not overcome the starting presumption that Congress does not intend to supplant state law for purposes of this motion to dismiss,” wrote U.S. District Court Judge Dennis M. Cavanaugh. “The state regulations focus on the same requirement contained in the federal regulations, i.e., accurate and complete labeling of a product’s ingredients. The standard of identity of pasteurized orange juice requires the disclosure of the added flavoring in a product’s statement of ingredients. Because plaintiffs’ claims involve an alleged failure to meet the requirements of federal law, and not a standard that deviates from or adds to such requirements, these claims are not preempted.” Tropicana also argued that the plaintiffs failed to plead reasonable expectations about the all-natural representation. With the word “pasteurization” in all capital letters on the front of the label, the company asked how a consumer could claim to be misled by the “100% pure and natural” statement?

But the court found no supporting evidence for the idea that Tropicana’s consumers “understood the intricacies relating to the shelf life and processing of the orange juice so as to destroy a reasonable expectation of the product’s freshness.” Instead, “allowing this matter to progress to the discovery phase will provide the court with a more detailed answer to the question of whether the named plaintiffs believed they were getting fresh, as opposed to pasteurized, orange juice.”

Judge Cavanaugh further declined to dismiss the suit based on Tropicana’s contention that the plaintiffs failed to establish the “where” requirement. “The ‘where’ requirement may be satisfied by the misrepresentations allegedly contained on Tropicana’s labels or packages; there need not be strict identification of one particular store location where it is alleged that the labeling and packaging in question was sold in thousands of locations throughout the country,” he concluded.

The decision was not a complete victory for the putative class. Although the court allowed claims for violations of the New York and New Jersey consumer protection laws, breach of warranty, and unjust enrichment to move forward, claims under Wisconsin law for false and deceptive advertising for “merchandise” and punitive damages were dismissed.

To read the opinion in Lynch v. Tropicana Products, click here.

Why it matters: The Tropicana suit presents many of the issues commonly found in similar “natural” class actions, from a preemption argument by the defense to a dispute between the parties over the plaintiffs’ reasonable reliance upon the challenged claims. Although the Lynch suit survived a motion to dismiss, the case remains in the early stages.