In so doing, General Mills follows a string of other leading food & beverage companies - including Trader Joe's, PepsiCo, Kashi and Pop Chips - that have agreed to settle similar cases without admitting liability in order to avoid the cost and uncertainty of protracted litigation.
In a series of class action complaints brought by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and two law firms in 2012, plaintiffs Judith Janney, Gabriel Rojas, Sean Bolac and Nicole Van Atta alleged that marketing the Nature Valley bars as ‘100% natural’ was deceptive because they contained ‘highly processed’ ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).
After two years of legal wrangling, General Mills has not admitted liability, but has agreed to settle. No monetary relief will be awarded to consumers, but the plaintiffs will each receive $7,500 for their work in representing the class, while General Mills has agreed to pay the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees.
It has also agreed that it will not use the term ‘100% natural’ on product labels, marketing or advertising materials for 30 Nature Valley products that contain calcium carbonate, corn syrup, dextrose monohydrate, glycerin, HFCS, high maltose corn syrup, maltodextrin, sodium bicarbonate, soy lecithin, soy protein iosolate and tocopherols.
And it will not describe as ‘100% natural’ bars containing bioengineered crops or plant materials unless they account for less than 0.9% of the ingredients.
CSPI: Deal will ‘nudge the marketplace, otherwise awash in varyingly flimsy ‘natural’ claims, in the right direction’
General Mills did not comment on the settlement, but told FoodNavigator-USA it had stopped using the ‘100% natural’ claims on Nature Valley labels before the lawsuit was filed. A spokeswoman said: “The changes to the label preceded the lawsuit and were made in 2012.”
Steve Gardner, director of litigation at the CSPI, told us he was pleased with the settlement, adding: “CSPI’s goal is always, first and foremost, to stop an ongoing practice. We got that done. No acceptable official definition of 'natural' should allow the claim on highly processed ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup or maltodextrin, substances that literally do not occur in nature. But as long as there is no [legal] definition, companies will still recklessly make the claim, and consumers will continue to be deceived."
The agreement would also help “nudge the marketplace, otherwise awash in varyingly flimsy ‘natural’ claims, in the right direction”, said the CSPI.
‘I’m tired of hearing defense lawyers saying the problem is opportunistic plaintiff’s lawyers’
Speaking at the recent FoodNavigator-USA Natural & Clean Label trends online forum, Gardner said the only surefire way to restore consumer trust and stop the deluge of lawsuits over ‘natural’ would be to define what it actually means - in law.
And the notion that defining ‘natural’ is just too hard and that we therefore shouldn’t even bother to attempt it, is defeatist and “disingenuous”, he added: “A definition would never be perfect but we shouldn’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.”
Alternatively, of course, marketers could just stop using the word ‘natural’ altogether, he said, or simply accept that they are likely to get sued if they use it on products that contain ingredients that many consumers - reasonably or otherwise - don’t like the sound of.
While many food & beverage companies at the receiving end of these lawsuits beg to differ, he added: “I’m tired of hearing defense lawyers saying the problem is opportunistic plaintiff’s lawyers. [The problem is] opportunistic companies that are making claims that get them sued.”
The case is Janney et al v General Mills and Does 1-2 #3:12-cv-03919.
Click HERE to watch our recent online forum on natural & clean label trends on demand.
Click HERE to see what brands from Chobani to Runa think of the word 'natural'.