A California federal district judge recently dismissed with prejudice a class-action suit attacking the ‘all natural’ labeling of Buitoni pasta. There is some important learning in this case. Firstly, 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. Secondly, the definition of the phrase ‘all natural’ remains amorphous and elusive. The California court rejected all four of the claimant’s attempts to provide a clear, accurate definition, and then resolved the motion to dismiss without actually defining ‘all natural’. Therefore, while Buitoni may continue labeling its pasta ‘all natural’, consumers and manufacturers are left to continue guessing its meaning.

Pelayo v. Nestle USA, Inc

2013 WL 5764644 (C.D. Cal) 

October 25, 2013

In 2013, Maritza Pelayo brought a class-action suit against Nestlé (the maker of Buitoni pasta) for false and misleading labeling. The complaint focused on 13 ‘nationally manufactured and marketed packaged pasta’ products ‘found in the refrigerated aisle of grocery stores’.

The claim

Pelayo alleged that she purchased two Buitoni pasta products only because they were labeled ‘all natural’ and she understood the ‘all natural’ label to mean that the pasta did not contain any unnatural, artificial or synthetic ingredients. In fact, the pasta contained both synthetic xanthan gum and soy lecithin. The class-action suit claimed that Nestlé had violated the California Unfair Competition Law and the California Consumer Legal Remedies Act. Claims under both statutes are governed by the ‘reasonable consumer test’: would a significant portion of the general consuming public reasonably be misled by the labeling?

The ruling

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. Firstly, the court determined that the Buitoni packaging would not mislead ‘a reasonable consumer’. Buitoni products are labelled as ‘all natural’ in two places: the front of the package, and the back. The label on the back of the package appears directly above the list of ingredients. Any ambiguity over Buitoni’s use of ‘all natural’, said 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 was sufficient. One of her proposed definitions, that ‘natural’ means ‘produced or existing in nature’, prompted the court to quote Nestlé’s argument that ‘the reasonable consumer is aware that Buitoni Pastas are not springing fully formed from Ravioli trees and Tortellini bushes’.