On December 8, 2014, U.S. District Court Judge Lucy Koh of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California granted defendant Dole’s motion for summary judgment of the plaintiff’s false labeling claims in Brazil v. Dole Packaged Foods, LLC.  The court granted summary judgment on the ground that the plaintiff had failed to present sufficient evidence that the challenged “All Natural Fruit” label was likely to mislead reasonable consumers.  As one of few summary judgment opinions in “All Natural” cases, this opinion provides valuable insight into issues that arise on the merits of such claims.

Plaintiff Chad Brazil brought claims against defendant Dole under California’s Unfair Competition Law (“UCL”), False Advertising Law (“FAL”), and Consumer Legal Remedies Act (“CLRA”).  His UCL claim was based, in part, on an allegation that the pertinent labels violated the California Sherman Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.  The plaintiff’s allegations centered on ten Dole products with the words “All Natural Fruit” on their labels.  The plaintiff argued that those labels are unlawful and misleading because the products contain ascorbic acid and citric acid, which the plaintiff alleged are synthetic ingredients.  The court had previously certified and, as previously reported, recently decertified in part, classes of purchasers of the Dole products.

Dole moved for summary judgment of the plaintiff’s claims on four grounds, only one of which the court addressed.  Dole argued, in pertinent part, that there was no evidence of class-wide deception because the plaintiff had made no showing that reasonable consumers were likely to have been misled by the “All Natural Fruit” label.  The court agreed.

The court noted that the plaintiff’s UCL, FAL, and CLRA claims are all governed by the “reasonable consumer standard” which requires evidence that “members of the public are likely to be deceived.”  The court also noted that the plaintiff had confirmed that the “fundamental question” with respect to his Sherman Act claim was whether the challenged labels were misleading to reasonable consumers.  In order to survive summary judgment, the plaintiff was required to show that it was “probable” that a significant portion of “reasonably prudent” consumers could be misled by the advertising.  The court noted that though the Ninth Circuit does not require consumer surveys and expert testimony regarding consumer expectations, presenting a mere a handful of examples of actual deception is not sufficient.

The court found the plaintiff’s evidence was insufficient to create a genuine dispute of material fact.  Though the plaintiff had testified that he understood the label “All Natural Fruit” meant that the contents of the entire package were natural, his testimony alone was not sufficient.  The court noted that the plaintiff had been offered a number of opportunities to produce evidence supporting his contention that a reasonable consumer would believe “All Natural” products do not contain synthetic, artificial, or excessively processed ingredients.  The plaintiff failed to produce any supporting evidence in discovery, and his expert’s reports were silent on the issue.

In the absence of other evidence, the plaintiff attempted to rely on the FDA’s informal definition of the term “natural” as evidence of how “reasonable consumers” would view Dole’s labels.  Though the FDA has declined to establish a formal definition, it has stated that its “policy” is to consider “natural” to mean “that nothing artificial or synthetic…has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food.”  In response, Dole argued that the plaintiff offered no evidence that citric acid and ascorbic acid, the two allegedly synthetic ingredients, “would not normally expected to be in” those products, as the FDA definition requires.  The court agreed with Dole, noting also that the plaintiff had not pointed to a single FDA warning letter to Dole regarding its “All Natural Fruit” labels.  Based on this failure to present evidence that a significant number of reasonable consumers could be misled by the label, the court granted Dole’s motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s UCL, FAL, and CLRA claims.

Judge Koh’s summary judgment opinion in Dole marks one of the few decisions on the merits that have been issued in the myriad “All Natural” cases.  Defendants considering whether they can defeat the false labeling claims against them on a motion for summary judgment should look to Brazil v. Dole as an indication of the court’s most recent thoughts on the issue, and in particular on a plaintiff’s evidentiary burden.