Muffin-Mix Manufacturer Burned By “Natural” Labeling

Contributed by Caroline Toole

As we previously reported, the food industry is currently awaiting formal guidance from the FDA on the meaning of the word “natural.” The agency currently has an informal definition of “natural,” under which the term means that “nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food.”

In the meantime, plaintiffs have continued to bring suits alleging that food products are misleadingly labeled if the front of the package advertises the product as “natural” but the food contains some quantity of artificial ingredients. Defendants in these suits frequently counter that the “natural” labeling is not misleading because the nutrition label on the back of the package discloses all of the ingredients. However, this argument may not gain much traction among courts deciding motions to dismiss or to certify a class.

For instance, in a recent case, a plaintiff brought a putative class action against the manufacturer of a muffin mix that is labeled “Nothing Artificial.” The plaintiff alleged that this labeling is misleading because the mix contains synthetic leavening and thickening agents. The defendant moved to dismiss, arguing that the “Nothing Artificial” labeling could not be misleading because the ingredient list disclosed the presence of the synthetic ingredients.

The District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri disagreed, finding that a reasonable consumer may either rely on “Nothing Artificial” without looking at the ingredient list, or look at the ingredient list and not realize that the leavening and thickening agents were synthetic and/or artificial. As such, the court ruled that the combined effect of the “natural” statement on the front of the package and the ingredient list on the back of the package was a question of fact that could not be resolved on a motion to dismiss.

Food manufacturers should thus take heed that suits over misleading labeling can gain traction even where the packaging discloses the full list of ingredients. In particular, courts may be resistant to accepting the defense argument that the alleged misleading effect of flashy text on the front of the package is negated by small text on the back of the package.