Several consumers can proceed with a lawsuit alleging they were deceived by vegetable oil labeled as “100 percent natural” despite containing genetically engineered ingredients.
In 2015, a federal judge in California agreed to certify the lawsuit against the Conagra food company as a class action, allowing other consumers to be included in the litigation.
However, the case was put on hold while Conagra challenged the class certification before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The 9th Circuit has now rejected Conagra’s arguments that the case doesn’t meet the requirements for class action status, allowing the litigation to continue.
Conagra had claimed there was no way to reliably determine which consumers had bought its Wesson brands of cooking oils, and so there was no “administratively feasible way” to identify class members.
Possible difficulties in locating and verifying class members aren’t enough to disqualify such cases from being class actions, according to the 9th Circuit.
If such obstacles could prevent lawsuits from obtaining class action status, many similar cases would effectively be blocked from the courts because no realistic alternative exists, the ruling said.
When the potential financial compensation for each consumer is minuscule, it’s unrealistic for them to file individual lawsuits, the court held.
“Class actions involving inexpensive consumer goods in particular would likely fail at the outset if administrative feasibility were a freestanding prerequisite to certification,” the 9th Circuit said.
Conagra made several other arguments against class certification, arguing that most consumers didn’t rely on the 100 percent natural claim to buy Wesson vegetable oils and that they didn’t expect “natural” to mean the produce was free of genetically engineered ingredients.
The 9th Circuit rejected these claims, ruling that a federal judge did not abuse her discretion in certifying the lawsuit as a class action.
Three similar federal lawsuits over “natural” labeling for foods containing biotech ingredients were filed in the past, prompting those judges to ask the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for guidance.
The FDA responded that it doesn’t have a formal definition of “natural” and would need to seek input from the public and other agencies before developing one.
The agency did seek public comments on the issue last year, though it has yet to propose any action in the matter.