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Consumer case reopened against Snapple’s ‘all-natural’ labels

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 14-Aug-2009

A US Court of Appeals in Philadelphia has reopened a consumer-fraud case against Dr Pepper Snapple alleging that Snapple’s ‘all-natural’ label claim is misleading as the drink contains an artificial sweetener.

The case was thrown out last year on preemption grounds after Stacy Holk took the beverage company to court in 2007. That is to say that because product labeling is regulated federally, Snapple could not face action at a state court.

However, the three-judge panel at the appeals court said on Wednesday: “We conclude that the FDA’s policy statement regarding use of the term “natural” is not entitled to preemptive effect.”

Snapple Iced Tea is sweetened with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and the problem arises from the fact that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has no clear definition for the word ‘natural’. The appeals court judges said that because FDA has declined to set a definition, the case should be reopened.

“We believe that neither the FDA policy statement regarding the use of the term “natural” nor the FDA’s letter indicating that some forms of HFCS may be classified as “natural” have the force of law required to preempt conflicting state law,” they wrote in the court memorandum.

Holk has maintained that she had paid a premium for Snapple's iced tea and juice drinks, and had received something "less than and different from what was promised and bargained for".

No one from Dr Pepper Snapple was available for comment prior to publication.

HFCS controversy

This is not the first time that drinks firms have faced legal action for labeling drinks containing HFCS as natural.

In 2007, both Cadbury Schweppes and Kraft faced lawsuits after making 'natural' label claims on 7Up and Capri Sun respectively. Both companies changed the labeling of their products before any legal action was taken.

In March, Dr Pepper Snapple released an all-natural version of its iced tea, using sugar instead of HFCS, but denied that it was driven by trends for natural ingredients or any consumer choice to avoid HFCS.

HFCS has received a bad reputation in recent years with a clutch of companies scrambling to remove the sweetener.

Campaigners against HFCS point to epidemiological studies that have linked the consumption of sweetened beverages and obesity, as well as some science that claims that the body processes the syrup differently than other sugars due to the fructose content, leading to greater fat storage.

However, industry associations like the Corn Refiners Association have repeatedly claimed there is no scientific evidence to suggest that HFCS is uniquely responsible for people becoming obese.

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