Ricola advertises that its cough drops provide "Naturally Soothing Relief That Lasts." Does that mean that all of the ingredients in the cough drops are "natural"?

In Comfort v. Ricola USA, the plaintiffs sued Ricola under New York law, alleging that its "Naturally Soothing" claim is false and misleading because it falsely communicates that the product is all natural, when, in fact, the product contains artificial ingredients. The plaintiffs alleged that the product contained unnatural, synthetic, artificial, and/or genetically modified ingredients, including aspartame, ascorbic acid, citric acid, isomalt, malic acid, and sorbitol.

In Ricola's motion to dismiss, Ricola argued that the package does not claim that the product is all natural. Ricola argued that "Naturally Soothing Relief" just refers to the specific natural ingredient that provides the relief, which is menthol. Ricola said, "A reasonable consumer acting reasonably would perceive the Soothing Statement to mean that there is some ingredient or an ingredient that was naturally derived that provides soothing relief."

Ricola also argued that because the statement on the front of the packaging is potentially ambiguous, the ingredients list on the back of the packaging "could clarify the ambiguity and render the front of the package not deceptive."

The United States District Court for the Western District of New York denied the motion to dismiss, rejecting both arguments. Noting that the plaintiffs only needed to show was that the advertising was "likely to mislead a reasonable consumer acting reasonably under the circumstances," the court held that the plaintiffs had sufficiently alleged that a reasonable consumer could be mislead into believing that the product was all natural.

Is this just yet another in a long line of cases where class actions are challenging various permutations of "natural" claims? Naturally. (For other examples of recent natural cases, check out my blog posts on the use of "wild naturals" and "natural choice.")

But there's definitely more to it than that. Although this case is still in the early stages, it shows that you can't count on getting rid of these types of cases at the motion to dismiss stage -- even when you didn't make an express "all natural" claim and when you have arguments that the natural claim only refers to specific ingredients and the artificial ingredients are disclosed elsewhere on the packaging. Perhaps the most important lesson of this case, though, is that if you're making "natural" claims about your product in your advertising, but only particular ingredients are natural, one of the best ways to minimize your risk of a claim is to be clear about what the natural claims refer to.

Is the advertising "likely to mislead a reasonable consumer acting reasonably under the circumstances"?