Claims of “natural” products continue to prompt litigation, with two new consumer class actions recently filed.
According to a suit filed in federal court in New Jersey, Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever falsely advertised Ben & Jerry’s ice cream as “All Natural” when it contained chemicals, hydrogenated oils and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). The suit seeks $5 million in damages on behalf of a proposed nationwide class of ice cream purchasers dating back to September 2006.
The named plaintiff in the suit, Colleen Tobin, actually objected to an earlier class action settlement in which Ben & Jerry’s had attempted to settle its “All Natural” claims, and when a court denied approval of that settlement on September 12, 2012, Tobin filed her complaint just days later.
The Tobin complaint cites a 2010 study from the Center for Science in the Public Interest that found that at least 48 out of the 53 “All Natural” Ben & Jerry’s flavors contained nonnatural or chemically modified products like corn syrup and partially hydrogenated soybean oil.
The complaint also alleges that Ben & Jerry’s “All Natural” label was false because the food likely included products made with GMO food ingredients. As support for this claim, the complaint cites a statement on the company’s Web site that it “is virtually impossible to secure GMO-free assurances from our suppliers.”
Despite the fact that the ice cream maker removed the term “All Natural” from its labels, the suit seeks to recover disgorgement of profits and damages for the prior, allegedly false labels.
A second class action suit filed against Campbell Soup Co. in the Northern District of California under California’s Unfair Competition Laws is premised on similar allegations. Here, plaintiff argues that Campbell deceptively advertises and labels some of its soups as “100% Natural” even though they contain GMOs like soy, corn, and derivatives of the same.
According to the complaint, named plaintiff Ryan Barnes “purchased the [soup products] because he believed the products were ‘100% Natural,’ based on his reliance upon Campbell’s material statement . . . on the front labeling of the products.” Plaintiff goes on to claim that he would not have purchased Campbell’s Southwest-Style White Chicken Chili or Mexican-Style Chicken Tortilla Soup if he had known the soups were not 100% natural.
Barnes seeks equitable relief, including a halt to the allegedly false advertising and labeling, as well as restitution and disgorgement of profits and actual, statutory, and punitive damages for a class of California purchasers.
To read the complaint in Tobin v. Conopco, click here.
To read the complaint in Barnes v. Campbell Soup Co., click here.
Why it matters: “Natural” claims are ripe for false advertising lawsuits, particularly in the food industry. Dozens of class actions have been filed this year alone against Kashi, Balance Bar, Trader Joe’s, ConAgra Foods, Frito-Lay, Inc and other ice cream makers. Because the FDA has not defined the term “natural” or “all natural,” there is considerable uncertainty in this area. Companies cannot underestimate the importance of engaging counsel and making sure that advertising and labeling claims can be adequately supported.