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Jan Lee headshot

Food Companies Face Class Action Lawsuit Over "Natural" Labels

By Jan Lee

What’s natural, and what’s not? It may sound like a great topic for a philosophical debate, but in the view of companies like Campbell's Soup, Trader Joe’s and Ben & Jerry’s, finding a way to portray that quintessential goodness is important. And - it can be a revenue changer.

For many customers who like to eat canned soup, stock up on their favorite products or indulge in the latest frozen deserts, however, words like “natural,” or labels that boast the wholesomeness of their products need to have the ingredients to back up the claim.

Presently, all three companies are defendants in class action suits that allege they misrepresented the nature of the ingredients on their product labels.

Campbell's Soup - Mmm, mmm ... natural

The Campbell's Soup Company is currently being sued  by Florida residents for misrepresenting the genetically modified (GMO) corn in its soup as “natural.” The suit, which was launched in 2012 by Mark Krzykwa, alleges that Campbell knowingly mislabeled ingredients that it knew were grown from genetically modified seeds. It strikes at the heart of an issue that has many consumers upset these days: their apparent lack of control over whether GMO ingredients are in their foods.

Earlier this year, Campbell's attempted to have the suit thrown out of court,  saying that the Federal Drug Administration’s (FDA) approval of the new line of soups preempted the plaintiff’s claim.

However, U.S. District Court Judge William P. Dimitrouleas didn’t see it that way in his May 24 ruling.

“We do not even know whether, when reviewing the label for whether it was ‘misleading,’ the USDA even knew that the soup contained GMO corn, particularly as there is nothing on the soup label to so indicate.”

Judge Dimitrouleas also disagreed with Campbell’s argument that jurisdiction over this case belonged to the FDA.

The FDA, he said, “simply does not regulate those claims.” He pointed out that the federal agency has, on more than one occasion, refused to regulate how the word “natural” is to be interpreted, leaving the debate to the courts.

This is not the first time Campbell's Soup has been hit with a consumer lawsuit. In 2010, four women sued Campbell's for claiming that a brand of tomato soup it marketed was “low sodium.”  The plaintiffs alleged that the soup contained the same amount of sodium in it as Campbell’s regular tomato soup. The suit was settled in September 2011 for $1.05 million plus attorneys’ fees.

Campbell's also settled a large class-action suit in 2003 that alleged that the company had artificially inflated its sales record through the use of “sham shipments.” Campbell's denied the allegation and settled for $35 million plus an undisclosed payment from its insurance. The class-action suit comprised 10 security-fraud suits during or after 1999.

Ben & Jerry's "All Natural" Ice Cream

New Jersey resident Colleen Tobin also took exception to the expression “all natural” and sued Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream in 2012. Tobin cited a report she had read that stated the ice cream maker uses GMO ingredients, hydrogenated oils and other substances she says are less than “all natural.”

Ben and Jerry’s attempted to settle in August, but the settlement was rejected by the courts because of insufficient notice of a pending settlement. A new suit was filed in September 2012.

Just recently Ben & Jerry's announced that they'd be phasing out use of GMOs.

Trader Joe's evaporated cane juice

Trader Joe’s is being taken to court by California Bay Area residents Amy Gitson, Christine Vodicka and Deborah Ross, who say that the company’s use of “evaporated cane juice” on its own products is misleading because it makes the products appear to have healthier ingredients.

On their side is an FDA Guidance for Industry that was published in 2009, advising industries that “sweeteners derived from sugar cane syrup should not be listed in the ingredient declaration by names which suggest that the ingredients are juice, such as ‘evaporated cane juice' … because they fail to reveal the basic nature of the food and its characterizing properties (i.e., that the ingredients are sugars or syrups) as required by 21 CFR 102.5.”

It will be interesting to see the outcome of each of these cases, which are only a few of the many suits in the courts for alleged mislabeling of ingredients in food products, especially in light of the growing efforts to overturn the Monsanto Protection Act.

If there is any message to be gained from these suits, it is that an increasing number of consumers feel that using language that suggests foods are “natural” and wholesome is no longer good enough. Without the FDA’s official stamp on the issue, however, it’s doubtful that the tendency to label food products by trendy and appealing-sounding names will die naturally any time soon.

Image of Ben & Jerry's ice cream by Amy Ashcraft

Image of Campbell Soup cups by Jeff Kubina

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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