What’s in a name? According to a trio of plaintiffs who in June 2016 sued cereal maker Post, a lot more than Shakespeare’s Juliet would have Romeo believe.
The three class-action complaints center on a name – “natural” – that the food manufacturer uses to describe its products, specifically Shredded Wheat. The company touts the products on their boxes as having “100% natural whole grain wheat.” The culprits are Original Spoon Size, Original Big Biscuit, Spoon Size Honey Nut, Spoon Size Wheat ’n Bran and Crunch.
An American breakfast-table staple for decades, Shredded Wheat is branded as a good source of fiber, a great way to start your morning and a healthy alternative to, say, bacon and eggs. But the parties wonder how a name like “natural” can describe an ingredient that contains a chemical that could cause cancer. The chemical, glyphosate, is a synthetic herbicide that kills weeds.
“According to the plaintiffs, consumers reasonably believe that a product labeled ‘natural’ contains no, and indeed has never been sprayed with any, synthetic ingredients and that the cereal advertising therefore violates California, New York and District of Columbia consumer protection laws,” states an article in Food Safety Magazine titled “The Post Foods Cases: When ‘Natural’ Means Stay.” “Of course, whether or not this is so depends in large part on how the courts, or better still the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), chooses to define ‘natural’.”
The FDA is facing a battle similar to the one surrounding the name “organic” as it relates to fish, meat and produce. That took 10 years to hash out, much to the dismay of many food reformists. The battle surrounding the name “natural” has only just begun. In November 2015, the FDA opened up the floor for public comments on what “natural” should mean to consumers. The comment period ended these May. The agency has yet to come up with a proposal. Meanwhile, products continue to be marketed as “natural” when they well might not be.
“For anyone with a deep, enduring faith in the meaning of nature, it may come as something of a shock to learn that the word “natural” means nothing at all – at least for the business of marketing processed food,” states an article in Time titled “It’s Time for the FDA to Define ‘Natural’.” “The word is a kind of orphan child, undefined by government, misused by industry and without a provenance or a use for the average American consumer.”
The litigation was filed in California, New York and the District of Columbia. Allegations include false advertising, unfair and deceptive practices and violation of the Consumer Protection Procedures Act.