April 17, 2012 Articles

Consumer Lawsuits Arising from "Green" Labeling Claims

"All natural" may not mean what it used to.

By C. Kinnier Lastimosa – April 17, 2012

Consumers are purchasing healthy, organic, and all-natural foods like never before. Perhaps not surprisingly then, the number of companies extolling the “green” benefits of their foods has exploded in recent years. And, as with most successful developments, plaintiffs’ lawyers and creative legal theories are usually not far behind. In the last couple of years, numerous consumer fraud lawsuits—many on a class-action basis—have been filed alleging that food products were falsely or deceptively labeled as “all natural” or “100% natural.” Generally speaking, the lawsuits allege that the foods were not completely “natural” because they contained synthetic ingredients such as chemicals, man-made compounds, and genetically modified organisms. In one particularly inspired filing just this week in Miami, a number of grocery retailers were sued for alleged false and deceptive marketing because their private-label honey brands unnecessarily removed all traces of naturally occurring pollen, allegedly in violation of Florida’s “honey standard of identity.” With such inventive theories, any food producer (or retailer) that uses (or sells) preservatives, synthetic chemicals, or genetically modified organisms are potential targets, at least until the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provides further guidance on the definition of “natural.” Companies faced with such litigation should be aware that they are not without defenses separate and distinct from the FDA and whether the ingredient indeed qualifies as “natural.”

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