Appeals Court Reverses Ruling on “100% Natural” Label Use on Oil Containing GMOs

The First Circuit reversed a district court decision in a class action case about Wesson Oil’s “100% Natural” label, ruling that the complaint sufficiently pled a claim for relief. In the underlying case, the plaintiffs alleged that the defendant’s advertising was deceptive because the oil contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The opinion was authored by Chief Judge Jeffery R. Howard, for a panel consisting of Howard, Judge William J. Kayatta Jr., and Judge Nancy Torresen.

The lawsuit began after Margaret Lee learned the cooking oil she purchased, which was advertised as 100 percent natural, contained GMOs.  Lee sued Conagra Brands, Inc., the manufacturer and distributor of Wesson Oil, for disruptive trade practices. The case was appealed by Lee after the case was dismissed for failure to state a claim in the District of Massachusetts by Judge Richard G. Stearns. The district court determined the label conformed with the Food and Drug Administration’s policies and was not deceptive.

According to the opinion, the FDA policy permits a product to be labeled as natural even if it includes no synthetic ingredients like artificial flavors or colors; this does not factor in GMOs. “Lee claims that Wesson Oil’s label could have misled a reasonable consumer into buying the product under the (false) impression that it contained no GMOs.  The complaint asserts, for instance, that consumers consider whether products are “natural” when they make their purchasing decisions, and that they are willing to pay more for natural items,” the opinion states.

Lee in her complaint sought damages of at least $25 per purchase of Wesson Oil labeled 100 percent natural for the class, including anyone who purchased the oil in Massachusetts. Lee claims she purchased Wesson oil five or six times each year for several years before she learned it contained GMOs.

The opinion says Conagra “mischaracterizes Lee’s complaint and the FDA’s views” in their argument that the FDA does not require a GMO disclosure. Instead of asking for a specific label to be added, Lee is requesting an injunction that would stop Wesson from claiming their oil is 100 percent natural, they would still not be required to disclose that the oil contains GMOs. “Granting Lee’s requested relief would not contradict the FDA’s guidance,” the opinion states, citing that the FDA also suggests labels indicating the absence of GMOs could be misleading.