LOS ANGELES (Legal Newsline) – A Los Angeles-based attorney who focuses on mass tort litigation and consumer class actions in connection with food, supplements and other consumer packaged goods said a lawsuit filed in May against Utz Quality Foods Inc. is one of numerous actions of its kind that are “unjustified.”
Those lawsuits are consumer class actions that challenge the validity of products that use the word "natural" on their labeling.
“These are lawyer-driven cases seeking to capitalize on the fact that the term ‘natural’ is undefined by any regulatory agency,” David Biderman of Perkins Coie LLP told Legal Newsline.
“For any products labeled 'natural,' lawyers seek to find some ingredient that they can challenge. The ingredients are usually not chemicals, and are derived or part of plant materials. The lawyers try to suggest that the way the ingredients are produced make the ingredients not ‘natural.’ They are wrong.”
Lead plaintiff Cyrus Hashtpari of Ventura County, Calif., filed a class action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California on May 18 against Utz Quality Foods, alleging counts of common law fraud, intentional and negligent misrepresentation, breach of contract, unjust enrichment, and violations of California's civil, business and commercial codes.
In the lawsuit, the plaintiff alleges Utz mislabels its Dirty Potato Chips brand product by claiming the chips are all natural and contain no preservatives. Despite the all-natural claims on the label, the plaintiff says in the complaint that the chips actually contain non-natural, artificial and synthetic ingredients and preservatives.
“These cases are an unjustified attempt to capitalize on the use of the word 'natural' to somehow suggest that consumers are confused,” Biderman said. “They are driven by lawyers and, while it appears this trend is continuing, these cases should not be brought.
"They don’t help the public, and they create unnecessary issues for food companies who define their labeling in accordance with the applicable (Food and Drug Administration) regulations.”
The plaintiff is asking the court to schedule a jury trial, and to award the class compensatory and punitive damages, as well as restitution, injunctive and declaratory relief, interests, attorney fees and the costs associated with bringing the suit.
“If the court allows the case to move forward, there are strong grounds for moving to dismiss the case because the term ‘natural’ is not sufficiently defined to justify a claim that a reasonable consumer would be confused or misled,” Biderman said.
In addition, Biderman suggested that the company should ask the court to dismiss or stay the class action suit under the doctrine of primary jurisdiction because the FDA has now invited comments on whether it should define the term 'natural.'
“The courts should not intervene in these cases while the FDA is considering the issue,” Biderman said. “One court - a very informed panel on the Ninth Circuit, an appellate court, has already stayed a ‘natural’ lawsuit because of the pending FDA proceedings. The case should be stayed or dismissed.”