Does Your Food Product Contain GMOs? Read This Before Labeling It “100% Natural.”

Womble Bond Dickinson

Womble Bond Dickinson

The debate over the meaning of “100% Natural” remains unsettled. On May 7, 2020, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit reversed a district court’s October 2017 decision to dismiss a consumer’s complaint against Conagra Brands, Inc., maker of Wesson Oil, alleging deceptive or unfair trade practices.

The plaintiff/consumer, Margaret Lee, purchased Wesson Oil from grocery stores in Massachusetts over multiple years. Lee claimed that the “100% Natural” labeling on the bottles of Wesson Oil enticed her to purchase the product because it indicated to her that the product contained no genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Lee argued that she and other consumers willingly paid more for Wesson Oil under the belief that they were buying a natural, GMO-free product. Upon learning that Wesson Oil contained GMOs, which Lee deemed unnatural, Lee filed a lawsuit, on her own behalf and on behalf of other similarly situated consumers, alleging that Conagra violated Massachusetts’ law prohibiting unfair or deceptive trade practices (Mass. Gen Laws, Chapter 93A). After Conagra successfully removed the case from Massachusetts Superior Court to federal court, the district court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim, holding that Wesson Oil’s label conformed with FDA labeling policy, which prohibits a product to be labeled as “natural” if it contains anything “artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source)” (citations omitted). The district court further held that the FDA does not require the affirmative disclosure of GMOs’ presence in products. (Opinion at 5–6).

In its Opinion, the First Circuit made the following observations and determinations:

§ The district court evaluated whether Wesson Oil’s label was unfair, but did not address whether the label was deceptive. As Chapter 93A prohibits “unfair or deceptive acts or practices” (Ch. 93A, § 2(a)) (emphasis added), the district court should have separately evaluated whether the label was deceptive. To that end, the district court should have analyzed whether Wesson Oil’s label “had the capacity to mislead consumers, acting reasonably under the circumstances” to believe that the product was GMO-free. (Opinion at 8).

§ The FDA has indicated that “food labelers have no general freestanding duty to disclose on a product’s label whether it contains GMOs.” (Opinion at 12–13). However, Lee’s complaint does not demand that Conagra affirmatively disclose that Wesson Oil contains GMOs, only that the use of “100% Natural” led her to believe the oil was GMO-free. (Opinion at 15).

§ The FDA has not issued a binding rule defining “natural,” and, to date, the FDA has not stated that GMOs are natural and may be advertised as such. (Opinion at 10). The First Circuit declined to determine the “best definition” of “natural,” noting it only had to determine whether Lee plausibly argued a reasonable consumer might think that “100% Natural” meant GMO-free. (Opinion at 15–16).

§ The FDA’s statements regarding the use of the word “natural” “would not foreclose a jury from finding that the use of ‘100% Natural’ on Wesson Oil labels could deceive consumers into believing that the product was GMO-free.” (Opinion at 12). It is plausible that Wesson Oil’s label could have deceived a reasonable consumer.

Ruling that Lee met the “low threshold” to state a claim, the First Circuit remanded the case to the lower court. (Opinion at 16).

[View source.]

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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