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Nonprofits Sue General Mills Over 'Natural' Label Claims

Words by Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Energy & Environment
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Three nonprofit organizations think products labeled 'natural' shouldn’t contain toxic ingredients like the herbicide glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup. Moms Across America, Beyond Pesticides and the Organic Consumers Association filed a lawsuit against General Mills for misleading consumers by labeling Nature Valley granola bars as “made with 100 percent natural whole grain oats.” Glyphosate residue was recently found in the granola bars.

The groups say General Mills' all-natural claims on Nature Valley granola bars are “false, deceptive and misleading” due to the discovery of the herbicide. General Mills did not immediately respond to TriplePundit's request for comment. 

The lawsuit states that glyphosate is “a potent biocide and human endocrine disruptor, with detrimental health effects that are still becoming known.” The groups filed the suit with the Richman Law Group in Washington, D.C. under the District of Columbia’s Consumer Protection Procedures Act

General Mills is not the first company to face a lawsuit over the use of the word 'natural' on food labels. The Hain Celestial Group faced a lawsuit over the use of the word on its Alba Botanics line of personal care products. The suit contended that the use of the word 'natural' was misleading because the products contain artificial ingredients. A federal judge in California dismissed the lawsuit, but in the spring the Ninth Circuit reversed the dismissal. 

Glyphosate is linked to a slew of health problems

In April, the Alliance for Natural Health USA (ANH-USA) released a report that found glyphosate residues are “widely distributed” in breakfast foods. The ANH tested 12 popular breakfast foods and breakfast food ingredients, totaling 24 items tested, including eggs and non-dairy creamers. The report suggests that Americans eat foods containing glyphosate residues on a daily basis. 

The findings of the ANH report are troublesome because the herbicide is linked to health problems, as studies have found. A study published earlier this year found a possible link between the herbicide and a slew of diseases, including diabetes, obesity, asthma, infertility and lupus. The study found that glyphosate can cause changes to DNA function which can result in the onset of certain chronic diseases. Researchers concluded that “there is an urgent need to find an effective and economical way to grow crops without the use of glyphosate and glufosinate as herbicides.”

The International Agency for Research on Cancer, the cancer agency of the World Health Organization (WHO), classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans” last year. Shortly after, California added glyphosate to the list of known carcinogens under the state ballot proposition known as Prop 35.

"Food grown with dangerous pesticides like glyphosate isn't natural,” argues Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director of the Organic Consumers Association, in a statement. “Consumers understand this. That's why sales of natural products are booming. Unfortunately, companies' misleading claims trick consumers into buying just what they're trying to avoid. This has to be stopped."

Natural isn't what it's cracked up to be

The use of the term 'natural' on some food products can be misleading. Consumers assume when they buy a product labeled 'natural,' they are getting products that are truly 100 percent from nature and do not contain synthetic ingredients. That’s not always the case. Foods labeled 'natural' can contain high-fructose corn syrup or artificial ingredients.

Most consumers are unaware. A 2015 Consumers Report survey found that more than half (62 percent) of all those surveyed usually look for food products with a natural label. The survey also found that almost two-thirds of consumers believe the 'natural' food label means more than it does. The majority believed it means no toxic pesticides were used (84 percent); they also assumed the item did not contain artificial ingredients (84 percent) or toxic chemicals (85 percent). And 87 percent said they would pay more for foods labeled 'natural' if they met all of their expectations.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t define what the use of the term 'natural' means nor does it regulate its use. All it states about the 'natural' label is that it “has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”

Consumer Reports petitioned the FDA in 2014 to ban the use of the term 'natural' on labeling and asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to ban the use of 'natural' on meat and poultry.

The FDA asked the public to comment on how the word natural should be used on foods. The comment period closed in May. One comment submitted to the FDA stated that food products labeled natural “cannot contain herbicides, pesticides or fungicides.”

Indeed, foods labeled as 'natural' shouldn't contain a toxic herbicide like glyphosate.

Image credit: Organic Consumers Association

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.

Read more stories by Gina-Marie Cheeseman