GMO ‘grey area’ feeds ‘all natural’ class actions, says Barbara’s

By Kacey Culliney

- Last updated on GMT

Barbara's Brown Rice Crisps were non-GMO certified and on sale before an 'all natural' lawsuit was filed against the firm in May 2012
Barbara's Brown Rice Crisps were non-GMO certified and on sale before an 'all natural' lawsuit was filed against the firm in May 2012

Related tags: Class action, Plaintiff

GMO laws are vague and this is driving up ‘all natural’ class action lawsuits but consumers need to do more to steer the conversation, says cereal and snack maker Barbara’s, who recently settled a case to the tune of $4m.

The Weetabix-owned manufacturer recently settled a class action lawsuit over its use of ‘all natural’ on products that contained GMOs.

The action was filed against Barbara’s in May 2012 by plaintiff Richard Trammell who said he was misled into purchasing Puffin’s cereal because it was labeled ‘all natural’.

Barbara’s agreed to remove all of its ‘all natural’ on-pack claims and settled the dispute on June 21, 2013. The firm is now working to remove GMOs from its entire portfolio and has, so far, done this for 30 out of 37 products, but says the law suit wasn't the trigger for the non-GMO shift.

“From a legal perspective we weren’t doing anything wrong. Natural is defined very clearly in terms of it must contain no additives, preservatives, colors and sweeteners but in terms of GMO, the FDA has not taken a position on that. It’s a very grey area and it’s evolving,”​ Barbara’s vice president of marketing Federico Meade said.

“…Because it’s a grey area, it gives opportunities for these types of lawsuits,”​ Meade told BakeryandSnacks.com.

He said Barbara's decided to settle because it was already working towards going non-GMO and the laws surrounding GMOs remain too vague. The choice to remove the 'all natural' claim on pack was made to avoid any consumer confusion - the firm wanted to ensure consumers really understood what that meant, he explained.

The GMO conversation must be led by consumers... manufacturers should listen, says Barbara's
The GMO conversation must be led by consumers... manufacturers should listen, says Barbara's

Consumers should be leading the GMO conversation

“The ‘all natural’ claim – legally we can use it. But it’s a point of contention at this point. At the end of the day, we want to be true to our consumers. At this point in time we have no plans to use ‘all natural’ claims on our products,” ​Meade said.

“…This is an ever-evolving topic and I think the consumer should be leading the conversation.”

Barbara’s decision to remove GMO from its portfolio was in response to a consumer desire for non-GMO products​, he said, and not triggered by the class action lawsuit.

“I arrived in January 2012 to lead the marketing department and the company had already started with non-GMO plans. When I arrived Barbara’s already had one formula approved – certified and already in the market place with a non-GMO seal – the Brown rice crisps cereal,”​ Meade said.

A taskforce for Barbara’s non-GMO project was formed in March 2012, he said. “The settlement process and class action was very fast. We showed evidence to the courts and plaintiffs that we were already going down the path of removing GMOs.”

Lots of manufacturers have been hit by class action lawsuits, particularly on the 'all natural' front
Lots of manufacturers have been hit by class action lawsuits, particularly on the 'all natural' front

Mounting lawsuits and fears

‘All natural’ class action lawsuits have hit many manufacturers hard over recent years and anti-GMO sentiment is rising, fueled by projects and consumer action groups fighting for laws on use and labeling.

Speaking earlier this year at Snaxpo in Tampa Bay, Florida, Martin J. Hahn, partner in the Food and Agriculture Group at Hogan Lovells, discussed the rise in class actions based due to legal ambiguity about just what it means to be 'natural'.

“You can divide the lawsuits into three substantive areas – one would be natural claims, one would deal with violations of the health drug and cosmetic act and the third would be substantiation,”​ Hahn told attendees.

“…The rules of the game have changed. We have an FDA that is much more active and we have an industry that is under attack on so many fronts,”​ he said.

The attorney warned snack makers to think carefully and look closely at any natural claims being made. “Quite frankly a lot of my clients are thinking today this is an area that is just not worth the risk and are starting to take these claims off their products because they just don’t want to have to face the legal fees necessary to defend the action,”​ he said.

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