When consumers peruse the aisles of their favorite grocery stores, they will see a variety of labels plastered onto food products – anything from 100% Organic to Non-GMO to Non-RBST. Despite the somewhat ambiguous meaning behind these labels, this wording can assist consumers with understanding the quality of their potential purchases. However, these labels also affect consumer buying patterns, and this is an influence known by food companies and advertisers alike. The latest of lawsuits regarding food labels and misleading advertisements comes from Debbie Banafsheha, a California woman who is claiming that Heinz “All-Natural” Distilled White Vinegar “can’t be considered natural at all, because it’s made with GMO corn” (Renter, Natural Society, 2014).
The term ‘GMO’ refers to organisms that are genetically modified, corn being one of the most genetically modified food products in the United States. This lawsuit could determine the answer to whether or not a genetically modified food can also be considered a natural product. “Defendant’s ‘all natural’ representations are false, deceptive, misleading, and unfair to consumers, who are injured in fact by purchasing products that Defendant claims are ‘all natural’ when in fact they are not,” Banafsheha reported. The law firm Adhoot & Wolfson is representing Ms. Banafsheha and they seek to “represent all consumers who purchased the product in California from March 17, 2010” (Watson, Food Navigator, 2014). As Renter noted that, “For many people, the term ‘natural’ definitely can’t refer to products that have been genetically modified to contain toxins that make them resistant to pesticide. That doesn’t occur naturally” (Natural Society, 2014). But Heinz is prepared to fight.
So what exactly falls under the category of ‘All-Natural,’ and what policies should be applied to food companies who use the term? Ms. Banafsheha’s lawsuit is not the first of its kind (other lawsuits filed against major food companies include General Mills and Campbell Soup) seeking answers to these questions. Last year, “judges asked the FDA to come to an administrative determination on whether GMOs belong in ‘natural’ foods, [but] the FDA politely declined their request in January, and they are now back with the courts” (Watson, Food Navigator, 2014). So if you have seen more ‘all natural’ products popping up at the supermarket, it is not just your imagination. “United Natural Products Alliance (UNPA) president Loren Isreaelsen acknowledged that the percentage of new product launches featuring natural claims had held up in recent years despite the threat of civil litigation, but predicted that things would change in 2014” (Watson, Food Navigator, 2014). Mandatory changes to food labels could radically alter product advertisements. “Food giants…know we are an easy sell and a quick label change can take a food from being unhealthful ‘junk’ to not-so-bad after call” (Renter, Natural Society, 2014). If lawsuits against food companies continue to pile-up, consumers could see the effects of these on the shelves. In the meantime, Ms. Banefsheha and others like her will continue to fight for honest advertisements and better labeling mandates – and that is certainly something that mindful consumers can appreciate!