An amended complaint in the case was filed Friday (17 February) in the US District Court for the southern district of New York - a jury trial has been requested.
The case against the New York headquartered Dannon was brought by Polly Podpeskar, both as an individual and for others, who purchased yogurt products carrying the 'all-natural' label.
Podpeskar’s lawyers asked for the company to cease use of the label, make restitution and pay compensatory damages, punitive damages, attorney fees, and relief as the court “deems proper.”
Michael Neuwirth, senior director of public relations for Dannon, said the company was unable to comment on ongoing legal matters.
Last year saw the FDA launch an inquiry into the use of the term 'natural' on labelling - it received feedback from industry and others during the consultation period.
The Natural Products Association (NPA) claimed that food products made from biotech crops should qualify for a 'natural' label otherwise the term 'natural' would become synonymous with non-GMO and there would be no difference between a 'natural' and 'organic' labels.
"NPA supports the term natural to start with post-harvest and so does not include how the seed was created or how the animal was raised. Any discussions involving traditional plant breeding vs. GMOs, harvesting, animal husbandry techniques, use of growth hormones and antibiotic use for livestock would apply to “naturally raised claims” and not “natural” claims."
Our sister site FoodNavigator-USA.com has been tracking the success of such lawsuits in US courts.
In the complaint, Podpeskar’s lawyers asked for a class action to include anyone in Minnesota, anyone in a group of multiple states or anyone nationally who bought one of the products labeled 'all natural' for personal use through the time in which the class is certified.
Dannon sells several yogurt products that carry the all-natural logo, even though they are evidently made with ingredients from cows fed biotech crops and other “non-natural” feed additives including antibiotics, said the lawyers.
“All of the products contain ingredients derived from animals that are fed GMO crops, which are not natural,” they said in the complaint. “Specifically, all of the products are produced from milk. On information and belief, the cows that produce the milk in the products are fed GMO corn or GMO soy, neither of which are natural.”
Biotech feed crops are not considered to be natural because they do not naturally occur, the lawyers said. “Thus, reasonable consumers believe that if a cow consumes GMO grass, corn, or soy and then produces milk, the milk is not all natural and products derived from the milk, such as yogurt, are likewise not all natural,” they added.
The complaint also said that consumers connect the term natural with organic, said the lawyers.
Elements of the yogurt company’s pledge to include more products made with dairy ingredients produced by cows that do not eat feed with biotech ingredients were also referenced in support of the idea that the current products should not bear the all-natural label, according to court documents.
“In describing what steps it was taking to provide more natural products, Dannon explained it was ‘working with feed suppliers and [its] farmer partners to start planting non-GMO feed as soon as possible to fulfill [its] needs,’” Podpeskar’s lawyer said in court documents. “Not only does Dannon tacitly admit it has been using milk from cows fed GMO crops but it also recognizes that products made from milk derived from animals who eat GMO feed do not meet consumers’ definition of natural.”
Additionally, the complaint said that purchasers of the yogurt did not receive full value from the product they bought, according to court documents.
Dannon non GMO feed pledge
In 2016, Dannon announced that it would be turning to the use of non-biotech feed for its dairy cows for three of the company’s brands, Dannon, Oikos and Danimals, as part of an effort to offer additional choice for consumers.
The project was given a multi-year timeline, through 2018, because there was not enough dairy cattle feed generated in the US that was only made from non-biotech ingredients, said Neuwirth. An additional piece of the pledge was sustainable development of the supply chain.
That project is ongoing and there is no additional update on timing available at the moment, he told us.
However, Dannon has faced some criticism from farming organizations for its pledge to source more feed that does not included biotech ingredients.
They called the effort a marketing stunt that ignored the sustainability and environmental benefit from the use of biotech crops.