Hain Celestial Group’s “100% Natural” claims for numerous teas are not mere puffery, a California federal court judge determined, denying the company’s motion to dismiss a consolidated class action challenging the advertising.
Four cases were consolidated in California federal court, alleging that ten of the Celestial Seasonings teas – including Sleepytime Herbal Tea and Peach Blossom Green Tea – contained “significant levels of one or more” chemical insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides, despite bearing labels claiming to be “100% Natural.”
Hain raised three arguments to toss the cases: the plaintiffs failed to sufficiently allege the teas contain unnatural pesticides or that the public would actually be deceived by the claims. It also maintained that the claims were nothing more than puffery. U.S. District Court Judge Andrew J. Guilford rejected each contention.
The plaintiffs based their pesticide allegations on test results published by “an admittedly biased short-seller that admits it issued the report in hopes of driving down Hain Celestial’s stock price.” Bias might weaken the evidentiary value of the study, the court said, but did not support dismissal of the case at the pleading stage.
Similarly, Judge Guilford refused to dismiss the case on the grounds that the tea labels would be unlikely to deceive a consumer. Although the plaintiffs did not offer a definition of “natural,” he wrote that the complaint clearly alleged “a food product is not ‘100% Natural’ in the minds of consumers if the product contains unnatural chemicals. The court doesn’t see why plaintiffs need to allege a more specific definition.”
Finally, the court concluded that the “100% Natural” claims were not mere puffery. Although Hain argued that “the phrase is puffery because it is not capable of being proved false,” the court said under the plaintiff’s theory, even traces of any man-made chemicals rendered the product not entirely natural. “If that is what consumers understand the phrase to mean, then ‘100% Natural’ can be proven false with evidence of those chemicals,” Judge Guilford wrote.
Notably, the defendants also sought dismissal under the doctrine of primary jurisdiction, which would permit the Food and Drug Administration to consider the plaintiffs’ claims. Under the doctrine, courts may determine that a relevant agency should be responsible for initial decision making on a claim where enforcement is subject to a specific regulatory scheme that requires the special competence of an administrative body. The court declined to dismiss the case under the doctrine, noting that the FDA’s “lack of interest in providing further guidance on the use of the word ‘natural’ ” and citing several recent instances where the FDA has declined referrals from other district courts considering similar issues.
To read the order in Von Slomski v. The Hain Celestial Group, Inc., click here.
Why it matters: While the FDA has repeatedly declined to provide guidance on the use of the word “natural” in food labeling, litigation around “natural” claims continues unabated, with Judge Guilford addressing common issues for advertisers like puffery and whether consumers are deceived by such labels. He also faced questions of standing and the viability of class certification, which he deferred. The plaintiffs sought to represent a class of consumers who purchased ten different types of the teas, but only purchased two of the varieties cited in the complaint. Noting that courts have gone both ways on the questions of standing and class certification, Judge Guilford characterized the “questions of adequacy, typicality, or predominance of common issues” as better considered at the class certification stage.