A California federal district judge recently dismissed with prejudice a class-action suit attacking the "all natural" labeling of Buitoni pastas. Pelayo v. Nestle USA, Inc., 2013 WL 5764644 (C.D. Cal. Oct. 25, 2013). Maritza Pelayo brought a class-action suit against Nestle (the maker of Buitoni pastas) for false and misleading labeling roughly three months ago. The complaint focused on 13 "nationally manufactured and marketed packaged pasta" products "found in the refrigerated aisle of grocery stores." Specifically, Pelayo alleged that she purchased two Buitoni pastas only because they were labeled "all natural." According to Pelayo, she understood the "all natural" label to mean that the pastas did not contain any unnatural, artificial, or synthetic ingredients. In reality, the pastas contained both synthetic xanthan gum and soy lecithin.

The class-action suit claimed Nestle violated both the California Unfair Competition Law and the California Consumer Legal Remedies Act. Claims under both statutes are governed by the reasonable consumer test – whether a significant portion of the general consuming public would reasonably be misled by the labeling. The court found that Buitoni's labeling would not mislead a reasonable consumer and dismissed Pelayo's suit with prejudice.

The court gave two reasons for its decision. First, the court determined that the Buitoni packaging would not mislead a reasonable consumer. Buitoni products are labeled as "all natural" in two places—the front of the package and the back of the package. The label of the back of the package appears directly above the list of ingredients. Any ambiguity over Buitoni's use of "all natural," opined the Court, could be resolved by simply reading the list of ingredients.

Secondly, Pelayo was unable to articulate "a plausible objective definition of the term 'all natural.'" Pelayo proposed four different definitions, all of which were based on various federal regulations or dictionary definitions. None were sufficient. One of her proposed definitions, that "natural" means "produced or existing in nature," even prompted the court to quote Nestle's argument that "the reasonable consumer is aware that Buitoni Pastas are not springing fully-formed from Ravioli trees and Tortellini bushes."

There are some important takeaways from this case. First, locating an "all natural" label near the list of ingredients may dispel false labeling claims, even if "all natural" also appears elsewhere on the packaging. Second, the definition of the phrase "all natural" remains amorphous and elusive. The California court rejected all four of the plaintiff's attempts to provide a cognizable definition, and then resolved the motion to dismiss without actually defining "all natural." Therefore, while Buitoni may continue labeling its pastas as "all natural," consumers and manufacturers alike are left to continue guessing whether and how "all natural" will be defined.