ST. LOUIS (Legal Newsline) — A consumer’s lawsuit against Pinnacle Foods Group over alleged deceptive labeling on one of the company’s muffin mixes is bringing the complicated issue of defining the term “nothing artificial” as relating to consumer food labels into the courts.
In January, Missouri resident Erika Thornton filed a suit against Pinnacle Foods Group LLC, maker of a Duncan Hines muffin mix, “for deceptive, unfair and false” labeling of the company’s Simple Mornings blueberry streusel premium muffin mix. Thornton alleges Pinnacle labeled its muffin mix as “nothing artificial,” but the label lists monocalcium phosphate and xanthan gum as ingredients.
In October, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri court denied a motion to dismiss Thornton’s claims. In the days following the court’s decision, two other punitive class actions with similar claims were filed in Illinois and California.
Legal experts familiar with consumer and business law say this case is complex, especially because of using the word “natural” on a food label.
Paige Burnham - an associate in business litigation at Thompson Coburn LLP in St. Louis who has followed the case - says the suit is noteworthy because unlike labels touting a “natural” product, only a few cases have addressed the “nothing artificial” label.
She said courts are split whether the term “natural” has a definite meaning for a “reasonable consumer” to not be deceived when non-natural ingredients are disclosed on the product’s ingredients list.
“From the case law I have seen, most courts have said products labeled with ‘nothing artificial’ but contain chemicals like monocalcium phosphate and xanthan gum, open up the company to liability,” Burnham recently told Legal Newsline.
"Some courts say ‘nothing artificial’ is a clear statement so its more likely to subject you to liability.”
Referring to one of her blog posts regarding the case, Burnham said the plaintiff’s allegations in this case involve “nothing artificial” labels and the court did note that the FDA defines “natural” in terms of what is not “artificial” and that those words are used interchangeably. She said the court reasoned that the FDA’s interpretation of “natural” will affect Thornton’s claims.
According to the suit, Thornton alleges Pinnacle labeling the product as containing “nothing artificial” is “false, deceptive and misleading.” Thus leaving the courts to clarify the language, making it a complex case, said law professor Ann Marie Marciarille.
“These cases are complex,” Marciarille, a professor at University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, told Legal Newsline. "Food labeling class actions often hinge on language that the FTC and FDA have declined to define as a matter of law, so the definitional issue gets fought out on a case by case basis in various class actions, etc., such as this one.”
In one of its defense claims, Pinnacle argues the plaintiff fails to define “artificial” and that the two ingredients in dispute would “reasonably be expected” in a baking mix and that the label fully disclosed the ingredients.
Burnham said she believes the “ingredient list” defense should continue to be used until more courts have weighed in on the matter.