In the world of food misbranding class actions, few cases have yet made it to the merits stage. Companies defending against these claims should accordingly take note of AriZona Iced Tea’s recent win in Ries v. AriZona Beverages USA LLC, No. 3:10-cv-01139-RS, Docket Entry 195 (N.D. Cal. Mar. 28, 2013).
Challenging HFCS and Citric Acid as “Natural”
The plaintiffs in the AriZona case challenged the defendants’ advertising, marketing, selling, and distribution of AriZona Iced Tea drinks labeled “All Natural,” “100% Natural,” and “Natural” because they contained high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and citric acid. The plaintiffs’ UCL, CLRA, and false advertising claims survived a motion to dismiss and a California class was certified for purposes of injunctive and declaratory relief. See our prior post here. After the close of discovery, the defendants filed a motion to decertify the class and renewed a previous motion for summary judgment arguing that the plaintiffs failed to prove that HFCS and citric acid are not natural. This time the Court agreed.
Plaintiffs’ Evidence: “United States Patent law” Related to Processing HFCS
First, the Court found that the plaintiffs failed to produce any evidence that HFCS and citric acid are artificial. Instead, the plaintiffs requested that the Court take judicial notice of “United States Patent law” and rule that HFCS is not natural because there are patents related to the process of producing it. The Court rejected this argument out of hand, stating that “United States Patent law” is not a proper subject of judicial notice. Moreover, the plaintiffs cited “no legal authority supporting their contention that if the process to produce an ingredient is patented, that fact, in and of itself, automatically renders it artificial.”
Plaintiffs’ Failure to Prosecute Their Case with Diligence
Second, the Court chided the plaintiffs for failing to prosecute their case, stating that the attorneys’ efforts did not “begin to approach diligence.” In particular, the plaintiffs failed to identify experts who could support their natural claims within case deadlines.
No Evidence of “Premium” Paid for AriZona Icea Tea
Third, the Court found that the plaintiffs failed to produce “a scintilla of evidence” to support their claims for restitution or disgorgement under the UCL or FAL. The Court had previously ruled that even if the beverages the plaintiffs purchased were not all natural, those beverages still had some market value. The measure of restitution “must be based in evidence establishing the difference between the value of an AriZona Iced Tea billed as all-natural and the value of a comparable beverage not marketed or sold at a premium due to such claims.”
Defendants’ Evidence Showing HFCS and Citric Acid Are Natural
Finally, in addition to deficiencies in the plaintiffs’ evidence, the defendants produced evidence to show that HFCS and citric acid are, in fact, natural. The evidence consisted of an expert report, declarations from HFCS suppliers reflecting that the HFCS that the defendants supply accords with the FDA natural policy, and a certificate of the natural status of defendants’ citric acid from one of their citric acid suppliers.
This case has larger ramifications for companies defending against “all natural” claims. This case is about much more than the plaintiffs’ failure to prosecute their case and come forward with scientific evidence showing the iced tea is not “all natural.” The decision shows real skepticism toward these types of lawsuits, which is a trend we’ve started to see in which courts are requiring plaintiffs to come forward with more than just junk science in support of their attack on “all natural” claims.