On September 30, 2016, the 9th Circuit Court of
Appeals issued a key decision in the food labeling war over
what constitutes a false or misleading "all natural"
label. At issue was a label on Dole's food products
stating that they contained "All Natural Fruit." The
plaintiff contended that the inclusion of synthetic ascorbic and
citric acid rendered the "all natural" assertion
The court did not decide whether the plaintiff's contention
was true, but concluded that a trier of fact could conclude that
(1) a description of Dole's product as "All Natural
Fruit" was misleading to a reasonable consumer, and (2)
"that the synthetic citric and ascorbic acids in Dole's
products were not 'natural.'"
The court relied on guidance issued by the U.S. Food & Drug
Administration defining "natural" as "that
nothing artificial or synthetic ... has been included in, or has
been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in
the food." The court also noted that the FDA has issued
warning letters to food sellers, accusing their 100% Natural or All
Natural labels as deceptive because the products contained
synthetic citric acid, among other substances.
The 9th Circuit ultimately concluded that the District Court
erred in granting summary judgment for the defendant on the claims
asserted, but affirmed the District Court's decision to
decertify the class because the plaintiff had not explained how
damages could be calculated with proof common to the class.
Practically speaking, this may bring the dispute to a swifter
resolution, as the potential damages are severely reduced. The
damages should be calculated, said the 9th Circuit, as the
difference between the price customers paid and the value of the
fruit they bought (i.e., the price premium), not the full refund
value as the plaintiff contended.
Although the FDA has not announced any plans to establish a
formal definition of the term "natural" when used on food
labeling, the practical import of any revised informal guidance is
obvious from the 9th Circuit ruling — courts will listen to
what the FDA has to say.
The case is: CHAD BRAZIL, individually & on behalf of all
others similarly situated, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. DOLE PACKAGED
FOODS, LLC, Defendant-Appellee., No. 14-17480, 2016 WL 5539863, at
*1 (9th Cir. Sept. 30, 2016).
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