The debate over improper labeling practices in the packaged food industry has been heating up over the past few months, with a series of high-profile lawsuits capturing headlines around the U.S. Consumers are increasingly concerned about certain ingredients used in the manufacturing of popular food products, leading to a surge of litigation that seeks to hold companies accountable for misleading statements on their labels and packaging. Specifically, the use of terms like "all natural" and "additive-free" have come under fire, as the growing demand for organically sourced ingredients has led many manufacturers to adapt their marketing strategies and capitalize on current shopping trends. For example, a 2019 survey by Wakefield Research and Label Insight found that 53% of American consumers would be motivated to purchase a product if it claimed to be natural.
The prevalence of these claims is (at least in part) a result of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's refusal to provide a concrete regulatory definition of "natural." This has led to a notable lack of clarity around proper usage of the term, allowing manufacturers to formulate their own definitions without any official oversight. The resulting confusion among shoppers has significantly impacted public perception, as close to 45% of consumers believe there is an official verification process for natural claims on labels and packaging, according to FONA International. Additionally, around 82% of consumers say they sometimes confuse organic and natural products, which illustrates the clear inconsistency in modern food labeling practices.
Utz Quality Foods Settles Class-Action Lawsuit for $1.25 Million
On May 3, Utz Quality Foods announced it had reached a settlement agreement for a class-action lawsuit that was brought against the company in 2015, as The Associated Press reported. The lawsuit accused the popular snack manufacturer of engaging in false advertising practices that misled consumers about the content of its products. Many of their packaged food items feature "all natural" claims despite the presence of chemicals and synthetic ingredients.
As part of the settlement, Utz agreed to remove the confusing terms from its products' labels and packaging over the next four months. Court records also revealed that some of the ingredients used in the manufacturing process were sourced from genetically modified organisms, per the Evening Sun. Consumers who purchased certain Utz or Bachman brand food items between 2010 and 2019 are eligible for a partial refund, though claims are limited to 10 food items per household.
Superior Court in D.C. Dismisses Lawsuit Against Hormel
A 2016 lawsuit from the Animal Legal Defense Fund against Hormel Foods Corporation was dismissed by the Superior Court of the District of Columbia April 8, though third-party advocacy groups are continuing to push for labeling reforms in the meat production industry, Bloomberg reported. The lawsuit alleged that Hormel's use of terms like "all natural" and "no preservatives" on product labels were intentionally misleading. The ALDF specifically pointed to Hormel's line of Natural Choice® brand lunch meats and bacon, arguing that these products were sourced from animals "raised in the worst factory farms that employ additives, hormones and antibiotics, and contain ingredients that constitute artificial preservatives," per an ALDF press release from 2016.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has no clear guidelines on all natural claims for meat and poultry, as the term only means that products have no artificial ingredients and are minimally processed. Court officials held that such claims are permitted so long as the USDA has approved similar verbiage on the manufacturer label. While this was a major legal win for Hormel, the lawsuit stands as a stark reminder that clear and honest labeling practices are essential, even in the absence of explicit government-mandated regulations.
Three Major Packaged-Tuna Brands Face New Litigation
A series of new class action lawsuits filed May 13 accuses Bumble Bee, StarKist and Chicken of the Sea of deceiving U.S. consumers with their "dolphin-safe" product labels, arguing that these major packaged-tuna brands actually work with suppliers who employ unethical fishing practices, Reuters reported. The Federal Trade Commission passed the Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act in 1990, outlawing the false labeling of tuna that is harvested using methods that may harm or kill dolphins. The proposed class actions are seeking full refunds for all consumers that purchased tuna products from these companies in the last four years.
Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea have not made any official comments about the lawsuits, though StarKist has publicly condemned "indiscriminate fishing methods." It's not yet clear how plaintiffs plan to prove the "dolphin-safe" claims were misleading, but the bad press could negatively impact the companies' public image no matter what. As consumers continue to advocate for labeling transparency, these sort of legal cases will likely become more common, and may push federal regulators to revisit existing standards.