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Are California Courts Cooling on 'All Natural' Suits?: Naturally Beyond Belief

California’s District Courts have, of late, become the go-to jurisdictions for plaintiffs bringing ‘natural’ labeling lawsuits against national food manufacturers.  This is due, in large part, to California’s consumer-friendly Unfair Competition Law, False Advertising Law, and Consumer’s Legal Remedies Act.  California District Courts may be sending a different message though.

‘All Natural’ suits try to take advantage of the FDA’s and the FTC’s unwillingness to broadly define the term ‘natural.’   In one such suit, plaintiffs in the Central District of California claimed that ‘All Natural’ on the rear panel of some of Nestle’s Buitoni pasta products is reasonably likely to deceive the public.   Plaintiff asserted that the ‘all natural’ label is false and misleading because the products contain unnatural, artificial, or synthetic ingredients including xanthan gum or soy lecithin.

At the core of California false and misleading labeling claims is whether or not a reasonable consumer would be deceived or misled by the label.  While this question is typically not resolved on a motion to dismiss, dismissal is appropriate where a court can conclude as a matter of law that consumers are not likely to be deceived.  Two such examples held that reasonable consumers would not be misled to believe that Cap’n Crunch’s Crunch Berries are real berries, or that Froot Loop cereal contains real fruit.

The Central District applied California law which recognizes the ‘reasonable consumer’ to be an ‘ordinary consumer within the larger population,’ rather than the ‘least sophisticated consumer’ or an ‘unwary consumer.’  The Central District dismissed plaintiff’s false and misleading claim without leave to amend, because plaintiff failed to offer a plausible definition of the term ‘All Natural’ and because, as a matter of law, the term is not deceptive under the circumstances.

The Court took issue with each of Plaintiff’s definitions of ‘natural.’  In response to her Webster’s Dictionary’s, “produced or existing in nature” and “not artificial or manufactured” definition, the Court offered “the reasonable consumer is aware that Buitoni Pastas are not springing fully–formed from Ravioli trees and Tortellini bushes.”

The Court rejected as equally implausible, plaintiff’s assertion that all natural products should not include anything defined as ‘artificial’ by the FDA.  The court dismissed this line of reasoning because plaintiff did not allege that any of the challenged ingredients meet the FDA definition of ‘artificial’ and because the FDA’s definition of ‘artificial’ only applies to flavoring ingredients.

The Court further, gave short shrift to plaintiffs assertion that ‘all natural’ products should not include ingredients considered ‘synthetic’ under the National Organic Program.  The Court pointed out that the NOP only applies to product labeled ‘organic,’ which the Buitoni products are not, and that the NOP expressly permits inclusion of the challenged ingredients in products labeled ‘organic.’

The fact that the FDA and FTC declined to adopt a definition for ‘natural’ – in part because ‘natural’ may be intended to have different meanings in different contexts – helped the court reach its conclusion that within this context, “it is implausible that a significant portion of the general consuming public or of targeted consumers would be deceived or mislead [sic] by the use of the term ‘All Natural.’”

Finding no plausible definition, objective or subjective, for the term ‘all natural,’ the Central District held that plaintiff failed to allege how the term could be deceptive to a consumer acting reasonably.

These holdings alone logically support a dismissal with leave to amend, however, the Central District took the next step.  The Court cited a similar case in the Northern District of California case against Chobani yogurt and held that under circumstances, where the ingredient list includes the challenged ingredients, it is not plausible that the ‘all natural’ label would lead plaintiffs to believe that the product did not contain the challenged ingredients.

Because false advertising and labeling cases turn on reasonable reliance by the reasonable consumer, as California courts develop experience and a greater body of law in this area, expect more ‘All Natural’ cases to fail at the pleading stage.

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Howie Miller