Second Circuit Affirms Dismissal of Putative Class Action Against “Natural” Orange Juice Manufacturer for Failure to State a Claim Under New York’s Consumer Protection Statutes.

King & Spalding

On May 29, the Second Circuit held that an orange juice company’s use of the word “Natural” in its brand name was not deceptive as a matter of law, notwithstanding the presence of trace amounts of an artificial herbicide in the company’s orange juice products. The court concluded that a reasonable consumer would not be misled by the “Natural” brand name because the term appeared nowhere else on the product packaging, nor did the brand name connote that the orange juice was “pure” or “100% natural.”

  • Plaintiff Alexandra Axon filed suit on behalf of a putative class of consumers who purchased orange juice products from Florida’s Natural Growers (“Florida’s Natural”), asserting claims under New York’s consumer protection statutes, as well as claims for breach of express warranty and unjust enrichment.
  • Axon claimed that use of the term “natural” in the “Florida’s Natural” brand name was deceptive because its orange juice products contained trace amounts of glyphosate (an herbicide used to kill weeds that is not a natural ingredient).
    • Florida’s Natural moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim. The district court granted the motion, and Axon appealed.
  • On appeal, Axon argued that the district court made improper evidentiary determinations, applied an overly strict pleading standard, erred in analyzing the deceptive significance of the branding, and incorrectly dismissed her unjust enrichment claims as duplicative. The Second Circuit disagreed.
  • The Second Circuit held that the district court correctly concluded that a reasonable consumer would not be misled by the word “natural” in the brand name.
    • The court ruled that a survey that Axon attached to her proposed amended complaint did not support her allegations because it did not specifically address any aspect of “Florida’s Natural” products or packaging. As the court noted, the survey concerned the use of a “natural label,” not a brand name that used the term “natural,” and thus the complaint’s conclusory allegations were unsupported by the survey.
    • The court also reasoned that additional representations on the packaging, such as “100% Orange Juice,” “Non-GMO,” and “Not From Concentrate,” provided sufficient context for the brand name such that it would not mislead a reasonable consumer.
    • Moreover, the Second Circuit concluded that because the presence of glyphosate in the orange juice was merely an unintended byproduct of the production process, rather than an “intentionally-added ingredient,” a reasonable consumer “would not make assumptions regarding the presence or absence of trace amounts of glyphosate.” This distinguished the case from others in which the defendant added unnatural ingredients to its product or touted the products as “pure” or “100% natural”—terms that, unlike “natural,” indicate the absolute absence of contaminants.
  • The Second Circuit’s ruling adds further complexity to the wide range of false advertising case law concerning “natural” products. In particular, it underscores the need to analyze deceptive labeling claims in their proper context by examining the product packaging as a whole.
  • The case is Axon v. Florida’s Natural Growers, Inc. et al., No. 19-203-cv (2d Cir. 2020). Read more here.

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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