Food products sold under the label “natural foods” earned over $40 billion in U.S. sales during the past year. But what exactly does “natural” mean? This simple word is causing big controversy, and making food retailers rethink how they brand products in grocery stores. Lawsuits are popping up all over the U.S. from customers who are unhappy they purchased a product that actually contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Part of the problem is that the Food and Drug Administration has scanty guidelines when it comes to what qualifies as natural. As the agency’s website explains: “From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.” So it is up to the consumers and companies to battle it out in court. See what 7 products have become a natural litigation liability.
1. Pepperidge Farm: Goldfish Crackers
Smiles may be the first ingredient listed, but Lisa Leo wasn’t smiling when she found out her “all natural” Goldfish crackers contained GMOs. Leo says she ”paid a premium” for the snack item, only to be misled by the company as to what the product contained. She is seeking $5 million in damages under Florida’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act.
2. PepsiCo: Frito-Lay
Next up in snacking staples is Frito-Lay. Chris Shake filed a $5 million suit in Brooklyn federal court in 2012 because he paid more for the company’s Tostitos and SunChips, rather than a brand that made no “all natural” claims, because he believed they were better for him. Later, he discovered that the ingredients also included corn and vegetable oils made from genetically modified plants.
3. Smucker’s: Crisco
In August, a judge allowed Diane Parker’s suit against Smucker’s, the maker of Crisco, to continue. Parker has an issue with Crisco using “all natural” and “pure” on the label because the products are ”so heavily processed that they bear no chemical resemblance to the ingredients from which they were derived.” Parker believes that absent this labeling, consumers would have avoided the product. The label of “natural” the suit claims is something customers seek because they believe the product will be ”better, healthier, and more wholesome.” Parker’s case hinges on the assumption that there are GMOs in the product, a key point that Smucker’s says she has not proven.
4. Naked Juice
PepsiCo’s line of Naked juices settled in July over this very GMO issue. It left the company $9 million lighter, and it had to admit its products were not “all natural,” and that they weren’t made with “only the freshest, purest stuff in the world.” Actually, they had several synthetic ingredients that included calcium pantothenate, produced from formaldehyde. It was hit again in April with another lawsuit for covering up sugar by calling it “evaporated cane juice” on the label.
5. Trader Joe’s
This grocer is finding itself in a sticky situation legally because of sugar as well. Plaintiffs in California have filed a lawsuit against Trader Joe’s because the company has been selling “Misbranded Food Products.” Trader Joe’s, like PepsiCo, used the phrasing “evaporated cane juice” and “organic cane juice,” to hid sugars, the suit claims. The company also allegedly hid preservatives and artificial colors.
Life isn’t sweet for the artificial folks either. In September, Cargill Inc., the makers of Truvia, agreed to pay $5 million to consumers with the payout amount based on how much of the product a consumer had purchased. It will also rebrand Truvia in the slightest of ways. “Nature’s calorie-free sweetener” can continue provided it includes an asterisk and further information that in producing Truvia, a chemical process, and genetically modified corn are involved. The company may elect to use a new tagline to say the sweetener comes “from the stevia leaf,” or similar language.
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and Safeway customer Ryan Richards says the company’s ”100 percent natural” multigrain and homestyle waffles aren’t up to the standard. “Safeway engaged in the unfair, unlawful, deceptive, and fraudulent practice of describing and falsely advertising the products listed heretofore in this complaint as ‘100 percent Natural’ when, in fact, they contain the synthetic chemical ingredient,” Richards claims in his lawsuit against the company. The culprit is an odorless white powder that removes hair from hogs and feathers from birds in slaughterhouses.