California Federal Judge Michael Davis dismissed the class-action lawsuit against General Mills over its use of the term “100% natural” to describe the oats in its Nature Valley granola bars.
The suit was filed by three consumer groups - Organic Consumers Association, Moms Across America and Beyond Pesticides. They noted that a third-party laboratory had detected 0.45 parts per million (ppm) of glyphosate in the bars and believed the oats to be the “most likely source”.
Glyphosate is the controversial herbicide and active ingredient in Monsanto’s Round Up weed killer, the world’s biggest selling herbicide, used in over 150 crops in over 90 countries.
As such, the plaintiffs argued the Golden Valley-based food giant was misleading the public by claiming the Nature Valley granola bars were “Made with 100% natural whole grain oats”.
Naturally, your honor
Last week, Davis threw out the case heard in the District Court of Minnesota, noting in his dismissal order that the amount of herbicide found was permitted, even for certified organic foods.
Foods labeled as organic are allowed to contain chemical pesticide residue of less than 5% of the Environmental Protection Agency’s tolerance level,which for cereal grains is 30ppm.
Davis also noted that, even if the glyphosate traces are present on the oats, there was no allegation that the oats, themselves, were not natural.
“The packaging does not state that the product, as a whole, is ‘100% natural,’” he wrote.
Popular among US consumers
According to IRI data, for the 52 weeks ending June 11, 2017, Nature Valley granola bars are firmly listed in the Top 10 US snack bar brands – coming in second, third and tenth place.
General Mills, itself, commands the second largest share (29.31%) of the $6bn US snack bar space, chalking up $19.7m in sales during the period, just behind Think Thin that commands 34.17% of the market and saw $23.7m in sales.
Mike Simienas, manager, Brand Media Relations at General Mills told BakeryandSnacks the company was pleased with the court's ruling.
Katherine Paul of Organic Consumers Association and Zen Honeycutt, executive director of Moms Across America both responded, but did not comment on the California ruling, noting instead a case filed in Washington DC in August last year survived a motion from General Mills to dismiss on July 6.
The case is Organic Consumers Association, Moms Across America and Beyond Pesticides versus General Mills Inc in the Superior Court in the District of Columbia (2016 CA 006309 B), alleging violations of the Columbia Consumer Protection Procedures Act.
But, what is natural?
This isn’t the first time the use of “natural” on food packaging has sparked litigation.
In 2014, General Mills landed in court over the “natural-ness” of its Nature Valley granola bars.
Although there was no wrongdoing, the company agreed not to use the “100% natural” label on bars that include ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin or other highly processed ingredients.
Post Foods, ConAgra and Quaker Oats have also been targeted by “100% natural” lawsuits over glyphosate.
The term itself lacks a federal standard.
According to the FDA, it is difficult to define a food product that is “natural” as the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth.
However, the agency does not object to the use of the term if the food does not contain artificial colors, flavors or other synthetic substances.