The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s move to redefine “natural” when it comes to food labels likely contributed to a decline in “natural”-related lawsuits in 2016, according a law firm that tracks class-action filings.
Food-related class-action lawsuits have generally been increasing since 2008 but dropped 8 percent last year, according to Perkins Coie, which released its first Food Litigation Year in Review report earlier this year based on a review of dockets from courts nationwide.
The firm counted 145 lawsuits in 2016—most of them filed in California and New York. False labeling lawsuits remained the largest category, which comprises litigation related to claims that brands make about ingredients or the type of processing used in a product.
Perhaps the report’s most noteworthy takeaway was that the number of filings made last year related to “natural” claims was almost half of what it was in 2015. This decrease could reflect a resurgence of the primary jurisdiction doctrine in food litigation, Perkins Coie said, in which a court can stay or dismiss actions pending an administrative agency’s resolution of a matter—in this case the FDA’s ongoing exploration of the definition of “natural.” In March of last year, a California appeals court stayed a lawsuit against Chobani for its use of “natural” on products with color additives, and several courts have followed suit, the report said.
The nature of some “natural” lawsuits has changed, too. Since the World Health Organization’s statement in 2015 that glyphosate is a probable carcinogen, the herbicide has become a target of “natural” lawsuits. For example, a lawsuit was filed against PepsiCo’s Quaker Oats last year alleging that the company falsely advertised its oatmeal as “100% natural” even though it contains traces of glyphosate. General Mills faced a similar lawsuit over its Nature Valley brand granola bars, which are marketed as “made with 100% natural whole grain oats," but it was recently dismissed by a U.S. district court judge.
Although the report only tracked food litigation, the personal care industry has become a popular target for lawsuits related to “natural” claims. Unilever, Kiss My Face and Aveeno have all recently been hit with complaints alleging false representation of ingredients used in their “natural” hair and skin products.
See the full report here.