“Natural” Complaint Barks Up the Wrong Tree

A New York federal court recently dismissed a putative class action alleging that a line of dog food products was improperly labeled as “natural” where the plaintiff alleged that the products contained only trace amounts of glyphosate, an herbicide. See Parks v. Ainsworth Pet Nutrition, LLC d/b/a Rachael Ray Nutrish, 18 Civ. 6936 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 18, 2019).

Case Background

Plaintiff Markeith Parks purchased defendant Rachel Ray Nutrish’s dog food products at BJ’s Wholesale in New York. He then brought suit in the Southern District of New York, alleging that, based on the “natural” representation on the products’ labels, the products would “be free of pesticides and other unnatural chemicals.” (Apr. 18, 2019 Order at 2.) The plaintiff also alleged that he was willing to pay more for such “natural” products. He brought claims for violation of the New York General Business Law (“GBL”) §§ 349 and 350, breach of express warranty, unjust enrichment, and injunctive relief.

Court Grants the Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss

Judge Stanton granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss as to all of the plaintiff’s claims. The court explained that the plaintiff failed to allege false advertising or deceptive acts or practices under the GBL because “a reasonable consumer would not be so absolutist as to require that ‘natural’ means there is no glyphosate, even an accidental and innocuous amount, in the” dog food products. (Id. at 10.) The court also concluded that the presence of negligible amounts of glyphosate that do not cause harmful, toxic, or carcinogenic effects is not material.

The court quickly dispatched with the remainder of the plaintiff’s claims. As no reasonable consumer would interpret the “natural” label as conveying that the dog food products contained no amount of glyphosate, the plaintiff’s express warranty claim failed. The plaintiff’s unjust enrichment claim was duplicative of his other claims. The plaintiff’s allegations that he would consider buying the defendant’s dog food products in the future if they were reformulated so that the representations were “truthful” (i.e., the products contained no glyphosate) were insufficient to grant the plaintiff standing to seek injunctive relief.

Takeaway

Defendants facing false advertising claims based on a “natural” label claim should ask the court to dismiss such claims where the plaintiffs allege only that the products contain trace, not harmful, amounts of the purportedly unnatural substances. Reasonable consumers are not deceived in such circumstances, and the presence of such substances are not material to consumers relying on the “natural” label.