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Deceptive trade practice claim to proceed based on ‘nothing artificial’ label

Paige Burnham October 12, 2016

The Eastern District of Missouri (the Honorable John A. Ross, U.S. District Judge) recently issued an order denying a motion to dismiss claims involving an allegedly deceptive food label. Plaintiff alleged that she purchased a box of muffin mix bearing a “Nothing Artificial” label on the front, but the ingredient list on the back of the box disclosed the presence of monocalcium phosphate and xanthan gum, alleged artificial substances. She brought a claim under the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act (Missouri’s consumer fraud and deceptive trade practices act) and a claim for unjust enrichment.

The defendant relied on cases holding that the term “natural” is ambiguous to argue that it was unclear whether the term “artificial” encompassed substances such as monocalcium phosphate and xanthan gum. Thus, the defendant argued, a reasonable consumer would not have been deceived by the “Nothing Artificial” label. The court rejected this argument, holding instead that whether a reasonable consumer would have been deceived by the muffin mix’s packaging was a question of fact.

The defendant also argued that the disclosure of monocalcium phosphate and xanthan gum in the ingredient list precluded a finding of reliance on the “Nothing Artificial” label. The court rejected this argument, reasoning that a consumer might not read the ingredient list or might not know that monocalcium phosphate and xanthan gum are artificial substances. The court allowed both of plaintiff’s claims to proceed past the dismissal stage.

This case is noteworthy for a few reasons. First, unlike labels touting a “natural” product, few cases have addressed claims based on a “nothing artificial” label. With regards to the former, courts are split regarding whether the term “natural” has a definite meaning such that a reasonable consumer could be deceived when the allegedly nonnatural ingredients are disclosed in an ingredient list. But so far, no court has held that “artificial” is similarly ambiguous (and at least one court has explicitly distinguished the term “natural” from the term “artificial,” finding the former ambiguous but the latter clear in meaning).

The court’s reasoning in this case does not rely on a distinction between “natural” and “artificial” and is seemingly just as applicable in either context. The court makes no effort to distinguish a “natural” product label case from the Western District of Missouri and cites favorably cases holding that whether a product label is deceptive is rarely a question of law (see our blog post on a recent Ninth Circuit case holding similarly here). Until more courts weigh in, litigants should continue to raise the “ingredient list” defense.

The case is Thornton v. Pinnacle Foods Group LLC, No. 4:16-CV-00158-JAR, 2016 WL 4073713 (E.D. Mo. Aug. 1, 2016).

Paige Burnham is an associate in the firm's business litigation practice. She can be reached at 314-552-6175 or pburnham@thompsoncoburn.com.