We have posted before about the disturbing trend of plaintiffs parsing food labels to find something to complain about — not that the product is unhealthy or harmful or doesn’t taste good — but a “gotcha” game raised to the level of a consumer fraud act violation or a breach of warranty class action. So we like to note when common sense prevails in this arena. A federal court recently held that a food manufacturer cannot be in breach of an express warranty for using the term “natural” on its label when that same label discloses the identity and presence of any ingredients the plaintiffs claim were not “natural.” See Chin v. General Mills Inc., No. 12-02150 (D.Minn. 6/3/13).
General Mills produces, markets, and sells a line of Nature Valley products, including “Protein Chewy Bars,” “Chewy Trail Mix Granola Bars,” “Yogurt Chewy Granola Bars,” “Sweet & Salty Nut Granola Bars,” and “Granola Thins.” By all accounts these are excellent products that taste great and offer nutritious ingredients. Plaintiffs were consumers who allegedly purchased one or more of the Nature Valley products. The plaintiffs alleged the products were deceptively labeled as “100 percent Natural” because they contained fructose corn syrup and high maltose corn syrup. Plaintiffs alleged they relied on the representations, and would not have purchased the products or paid as much if they had known of the actual ingredients. Plaintiffs sought a national class, and sub-classes for New York and New Jersey.
The first problem was that plaintiffs sought relief for alleged representations made on bars that they never purchased; plaintiffs lacked Article III standing for these products and plaintiffs could not represent a class of consumers who purchased products that the named plaintiffs did not purchase. The named plaintiffs in a class action may not rely on injuries that the putative class may have suffered, but instead, said the court, must allege that they personally have been injured. Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 357 (1996); Thunander v. Uponor, Inc., 887 F. Supp. 2d 850, 863 (D. Minn. 2012).
The express warranty claim failed because the term “100% Natural” on a label cannot be viewed in isolation and must be read in the context of the entire package, including the ingredient panel. The specific terms included in the ingredient list must inform the more general term “Natural.” The specific terms determine the scope of the express warranty that was allegedly made to the plaintiffs. And here, a defendant cannot be in breach of an express warranty by including in the product an ingredient that it expressly informed consumers was included. It is typical of plaintiffs in these cases to elevate one word or phrase in a label, while ignoring all the other information provided the consumer.
Finally, the fraud based claims were dismissed for failure to satisfy the heightened pleading requirements of Rule 9(b). Plaintiffs failed to plead how they were deceived by the “100% Natural” statement. Plaintiffs did not allege with any specificity what they believed “100% Natural” to mean.
Motion to dismiss granted.