'Natural' labels taking legal heat: a hundred lawsuits lead food marketers to back off on some claims.

Author:Kenny, Jack
Position:FRONT Row

Most of us are familiar with warnings on labels that make us laugh or shake our heads. Well known examples are "Do not use while sleeping" on a hair dryer, and "Do not iron clothes on body" on an iron. Others include "For indoor or outdoor use only" on a string of Christmas lights, and "Warning: May contain nuts" on a package of peanuts.

Labels are constantly being redesigned, and are therefore a continuing source of revenue for converters. Not all undergo a redesign for artistic or marketing purposes, however. Those mentioned above probably were modified after the fact because something happened to cause the brand owner to add the warning to the label. It's difficult, though, to fathom what led to the cautionary note on the Christmas lights.

As we saw in last month's column about Tito's Handmade Vodka, sometimes what the brand owner does put on a label can cause a public outcry and in some cases land the brand in court. Tito's will visit US federal court in the future to explain why the word "handmade" appears on its label, a challenge having been made by citizens in California and Florida. Other beverage owners could face judges and/or juries to answer other recent charges about the contents or the manufacturing of their products.

Just recently, a settlement was announced in lawsuits filed against Perdue Farms, a well known US chicken supplier, by individuals in New Jersey and Florida over Perdue's claim on its labels that Harvestland chickens are "humanely raised." The settlement calls for the plaintiffs to dismiss their claims with prejudice in exchange for Perdue agreeing to remove the label claim from its packaging.

The Humane Society of the United States, which joined the lawsuits, maintained that living conditions and treatment of poultry for mass consumption are not humane even though they are described as such by Perdue and by the poultry industry. Perdue, while pleased with the resolution of the suits, rejects the allegations and "maintains that its labels are not misleading in any way. Nonetheless, it has agreed to discontinue the labeling claim at issue."

Far more widespread are legal challenges over use of the word "natural," so much so that the word is no longer appearing on labels with the frequency it had in the recent past.

Since 2011, more than 100 lawsuits have been filed against brand owners alleging that the claims on their labels and packaging stating the products inside are "natural" are misleading and/or deceptive...

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