A California federal court has granted in part and dismissed in part a motion to dismiss a putative consumer class action against The Hain Celestial Group alleging that the company mislabels its Sunflower Dream Drink as “all natural” despite containing artificial or synthetic ingredients, including xanthan gum and folic acid. Anderson v. The Hain Celestial Grp., Inc., No. 14-3895 (N.D. Cal., San Jose Div., order entered April 8, 2015).
Hain challenged the plaintiff’s standing to sue for the alleged mislabeling of “substantially similar” products she did not personally purchase as well as standing for injunctive relief because she did not indicate that she would purchase Sunflower Dream Drink again. The court disagreed with the first argument, finding that the products the plaintiff did not purchase are substantially similar because they feature the same “all natural” representation and contain artificial, synthetic or extensively processed ingredients. Discussing the argument against standing for an injunction, the court acknowledged a split on the issue in other courts in similar cases and ultimately agreed with the courts that have denied requests for injunction without a showing of possible future purchases. Accordingly, the court dismissed the injunction request without leave to amend.
Hain also argued that the plaintiff failed to plead her arguments with particularity, but the court disagreed, finding that the plaintiff’s complaint plausibly demonstrated why the challenged ingredients—tricalcium phosphate, xanthan gum, vitamin A palmitate, folic acid, and vitamin D2—are unnatural. The court also dismissed Hain’s argument that the “all natural” statement referred only to the sunflower seeds used to manufacture the product but not the product as a whole. “It cannot be confidently said, looking only at the label, that use of the word ‘natural’ in other less prominent locations renders ‘it impossible for the plaintiff to prove that a reasonable consumer was likely to be deceived’ by the ‘All Natural’ statement placed conspicuously on the front of the product, independent of any reference to sunflower seeds,” the court said. “One does not have to suspend reality to understand what Plaintiff apparently concluded after examining the Sunflower Dream Drink: that a product bearing the unqualified statement ‘All Natural’ does not include any unnatural ingredients.”
In a footnote, the court also dismissed Hain’s argument that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not defined “natural” in the food context. “That argument is unpersuasive since the FDA’s opinion on ‘natural’ is not a commentary on whether or not use of the word on food labels would mislead a reasonable consumer operating under a common understanding of its meaning,” the court said.
Hain further argued that the label accurately listed each ingredient in the product, and the court admitted that the “argument has some attractiveness because, as a matter of common sense, consumers like Plaintiff who are seriously concerned about the presence of unnatural ingredients in food products are unlikely to rely solely on one cursory representation touting a product’s attributes without reviewing the list of ingredients.” Ultimately, however, the court rejected the argument because it could not “find as a matter of law that an accurate ingredient list excuses other allegedly misleading statements on a product’s label” because the Ninth Circuit previously held “that a reasonable consumer is not ‘expected to look beyond misleading misrepresentations on the front of the box to discover the truth from the ingredient list in small print on the side of the box.’” Accordingly, the court denied most of Hain’s motion to dismiss but granted it in regards to the plaintiff’s request for an injunction.