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A New Day for “Natural” Claims?

On May 2, the Second Circuit upheld summary judgment in favor of KIND in a nine year old lawsuit challenging “All Natural” claims. In Re KIND LLC, No. 22-2684-cv (2d Cir. May 2, 2024). Although only time will tell, this Circuit decision, in favor of the defense, may finally change plaintiffs’ appetite for “natural” cases.

Over the many years of litigation, the lawsuit consolidated several class action filings from New York, Florida, and California into a single, multi-district litigation with several, different lead plaintiffs. All plaintiffs alleged that “All Natural” claims for 39 KIND granola bars and other snacks were deceptive. Id. at 3. Plaintiff had alleged that the following ingredients rendered the KIND bars not natural: soy lecithin, soy protein isolate, citrus pectin, glucose syrup/”non-GMO” glucose, vegetable glycerine, palm kernel oil, canola oil, ascorbic acid, vitamin A acetate, d-alpha tocopheryl acetate/vitamin E, and annatto.

The Second Circuit found that, in such cases, the relevant state laws followed a “reasonable consumer standard” of deception. Id. at 10. Further, according to the Second Circuit, the “Ninth Circuit has helpfully explained” that the reasonable consumer standard requires “‘more than a mere possibility that the label might conceivably be misunderstood by some few consumers viewing it in an unreasonable manner.’” Id. (quoting McGinity v. Procter & Gamble Co., 69 F.4th 1093, 1097 (9th Cir. 2023)). Rather, there must be “‘a probability that a significant portion of the general consuming public or of targeted consumers, acting reasonably in the circumstances, could be misled.’” Id. To defeat summary judgement, the plaintiffs would need to present admissible evidence showing how “All Natural” tends to mislead under this standard.

The Second Circuit agreed with the lower court that plaintiffs’ deposition testimony failed to provide such evidence where it failed to “establish an objective definition” representing reasonable consumer understanding of “All Natural.” Id. at 28. While one plaintiff believed the claim meant “not synthetic,” another thought it meant “made from whole grains, nuts, and fruit,” while yet another believed it meant “literally plucked from the ground.” Id. The court observed that plaintiffs “fail[ed] to explain how a trier of fact could apply these shifting definitions.” Id. The court next rejected as useful evidence a dictionary definition of “natural,” which stated, “existing or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind.” Id. at 29. The court reasoned that the dictionary definition was “not useful when applied to a mass-produced snack bar wrapped in plastic” – something “clearly made by humans.” Id.

The court, finally, upheld the lower court’s decision to exclude two other pieces of evidence the plaintiffs offered. First, the Second Circuit agreed that a consumer survey was subject to exclusion where leading questions biased the results. Id. at 21-22. The Second Circuit also agreed that an expert report by a chemist lacked relevance where it assessed “typical” sourcing of ingredients, not necessarily how KIND’s ingredients were manufactured or sourced. Id. at 22-24.

© 2024 Keller and Heckman LLP
by: Food and Drug Law at Keller and Heckman of Keller and Heckman LLP

For more news on Food Advertising Litigation, visit the NLR Biotech, Food, Drug section.

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