In a decision described as a “watershed ruling for consumer protection of all types” by animal rights group the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), the District of Columbia Court of Appeals has revived a case filed in 2016 by ALDF accusing Hormel Foods of falsely advertising lunch meats and bacon as a ‘Natural Choice.’
In the original lawsuit,* the ALDF argued that Hormel’s national advertising campaign ‘Make the Natural Choice’ was false and misleading, given that “there is nothing natural about the way Hormel’s Natural Choice products are produced."
Reasonable consumers, added the ALDF, would expect Natural Choice products to “be derived from animals who were provided access to the outdoors, were given opportunities to graze or forage…” and that animals used to produce ‘natural’ meat are “not fed artificial growth hormones.
“ALDF’s work has been frustrated by the rampant presence in the marketplace of meat labeled and advertised as 100% natural or all natural that is anything but – products derived from animals raised in the most unnatural and cruel conditions, cramped together in cages or pens indoors, and fed a steady diet of antibiotics and other veterinary drugs.”
‘We reverse the trial court’s judgment and remand for further proceedings’
Hormel originally prevailed in the case, with the DC Superior Court finding that the ALDF’s claims were pre-empted by federal meat labeling laws and that the nonprofit lacked standing to bring suit vs Hormel.
However, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals begged to differ on both counts, and has just determined that the ALDF does have standing to bring the case and that claims about Hormel’s print and digital advertising are not impacted by federal meat labeling laws.
“Federal label laws do not pre-empt ALDF’s claims, which attack only Hormel’s advertisements beyond its product labels, and not the labels themselves.”
USDA may have approved the labels for the Natural Choice products, added the court, but that doesn’t automatically mean that “whatever claims pass USDA scrutiny for labeling purposes are necessarily fair game to broadcast in all manner of advertisements… We reverse the trial court’s judgment and remand for further proceedings.”
ALDF: ‘Consumers deserve transparency into industrial animal agriculture’
Hormel - which claims the lawsuit is "baseless" and that its HPP-treated Natural Choice meats are distinct from other packaged deli meats as they use celery juice powder - which naturally contains nitrites and nitrates - for curing, and don't contain 'chemical' preservatives or 'artificial ingredients' - did not immediately respond to our request for comment on the ruling.
ALDF executive director Stephen Wells, meanwhile, said consumers "deserve transparency into industrial animal agriculture. Our lawsuit aims to ensure the public is not being misled by humane-washing when making choices about food.”
Court has yet to rule on the merits of the case
So what happens now?
While this is a victory on procedural grounds for the ALDF in that the lawsuit can proceed, a court has not yet ruled on the merits of the case (eg. Is Hormel's ad campaign false or misleading to a reasonable consumer?)
Kelsey Eberly, senior staff attorney at the ALDF, told FoodNavigator-USA: "Neither the trial court nor the appeals court has addressed the merits of the claim, but the parties did address the merits in cross motions for summary judgment."
She added: "We are waiting for the court to issue its mandate... This interim period gives the parties [in this case, Hormel] a chance to seek rehearing in the Court of Appeals or further appellate review from the US Supreme Court.
"Assuming there is no further appellate rehearing or review, when the mandate issues and the case is remanded to the superior court, the court will likely hold a status conference and ultimately, set the matter for trial."
*The case is Animal Legal Defense Fund v Hormel Foods Corporation 2016-CA-004744B (No 19-cv-00397) filed June 2016 in the District of Columbia