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Class action lawsuit v General Mills over all-natural claims and GMOs can proceed, says judge

By Elaine WATSON , 31-Mar-2014
Last updated on 31-Mar-2014 at 16:11 GMT

The issue of whether GMOs belong in ‘all-natural’ products is at the center of a growing number of class action lawsuits against big food brands from General Mills to Heinz and Campbell Soup.
The issue of whether GMOs belong in ‘all-natural’ products is at the center of a growing number of class action lawsuits against big food brands from General Mills to Heinz and Campbell Soup.

A judge has refused to dismiss a class action lawsuit accusing General Mills of misleading consumers by marketing its Nature Valley products as ‘all-natural’ when they allegedly contain GMOs.

General Mills had sought to dismiss or/and stay the lawsuit [Rojas v General Mills 3:12-cv-05099] on primary jurisdiction grounds, arguing that the FDA should determine the ‘natural’  issue once and for all and stop such cases clogging up the courts.

However, in a March 26 order Judge William Orrick said plaintiff Gabriel Rojas had “alleged facts that plausibly suggest that a reasonable consumer would be misled."

He added: "The front of the Nature Valley products’ packaging prominently displays the term '100% Natural' that could lead a reasonable consumer to believe that the products contain only natural ingredients. These words are reinforced by the words 'Natural' or 'All Natural' on the products’ boxes and individual wrappers.

"Together, these representations could easily be interpreted by consumers as a claim that all of the ingredients in the products are natural, which appears to be false because they allegedly contain GMOs and other synthetic ingredients... I DENY the motion to dismiss."

However, General Mills told FoodNavigator-USA it stood by its claims, adding: "We stand behind our products and the accuracy of our label."

Attorney: If you're using GMOs and making all-natural claims, there's a good chance you'll get sued

The issue of whether GMOs belong in ‘all-natural’ products is at the center of a growing number of class action lawsuits against big food brands from Heinz to Campbell Soup.

While some of these cases were put on hold last year as judges asked the FDA to come to an administrative determination on whether GMOs belong in ‘natural’ foods, the FDA politely declined their request in January, and they are now back with the courts.

Similarly, while the GMA has said it will petition the agency to clarify this issue, many observers believe the FDA is unlikely to take action any time soon.

Speaking at the recent Natural Products Expo West trade show in Anaheim, Greenberg Traurig attorney Justin Prochnow said: "If you're using GMOs and making all-natural claims, there's a good chance you'll get sued."  

While most ‘all-natural’ lawsuits are still moving through the courts, several high-profile defendants have decided to settle in recent months (PopChips, Trader Joe’s, PepsiCo/Naked Juice), while other well-publicized cases against Kashi and Bear Naked (both owned by Kellogg) also seem likely to end in settlements rather than going to trial

If you have not already been sued, chances are that you are on the radar

In a recent webinar on all-natural claims (click HERE ) Erik Connolly, a partner in Winston & Strawn’s Chicago office, said there had been a sudden surge in 'all-natural’ lawsuits in 2011 (49 cases) and 2012 (85 cases), but a slight drop off in 2013 (58 cases).

However, this did not necessarily mean plaintiffs’ attorneys were losing interest, he said, noting that owing to the length of time it takes for these cases to move through the courts, some legal firms were probably just waiting to see how certain cases played out before filing fresh complaints.

He added: “If you have not already been sued, chances are that you are on the radar.”

Click HERE to read what Mintel has to say about all-natural claims.

The data in the chart above was put together by Erik Connolly, a partner in Winston & Strawn’s Chicago office; Anne Regan, a partner at Zimmerman Reed in Minneapolis; and Jeff White, a partner at Robinson & Cole in Hartford, Connecticut; who were speaking at a recent webinar on all-natural claims run by Perrin Conferences.

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