They say Americans are “lawsuit happy.” Have you heard about the burglar who sued his victims after injuring himself while trespassing on their property? How about the woman who sued McDonald’s for not alerting her that her coffee was hot before she spilled it in on herself? Or, the woman who attempted to get $15,000 out of Universal Studios because she got scared while visiting their Halloween Horror Nights haunted house?

A new court case involving the food industry has got some people thinking we’ve got another petty lawsuit on the table. But, I’m wondering, should this one have all of us worried?

We, the Jury, Find the Defendant…
Not Natural

In late August, a class-action lawsuit was waged against ConAgra, maker of Wesson Oils. The New York City lawyers that brought the suit say the use of the term “100% Natural” on its canola oil is inappropriate because the product contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Herb-resistant canola is one of the most common genetically modified crops, making up 80% of the acres in western Canada, according to the Canola Council of Canada. By its very definition, such an ingredient couldn’t be classified as natural because its origins are from man, not Mother Nature.

This lawsuit is exciting, and sort of scary in its own right (though, I’m not sure yet if I’ll sue anyone over my anxiety). It indicates that consumers want to take control of what goes into their bodies, and they want the truth about the foods they eat. They’re passionate about natural foods, and they don’t want to be hoodwinked into eating something that’s semi-natural.

Importantly, it also shows a high level of understanding about natural products. These folks know there’s no regulation of the term “natural” and there’s room for interpretation. But, shoppers aren’t going to stand for intentional deception about it.

Now, here’s the scary part for me. GMOs, as we well know, are invasive in our food supply. Unless ingredients and finished products are certified organic or certified GMO-free by groups like the Non-GMO Project, there’s no way to know if a food contains them. In fact, they could be crawling all over your shelves right now. So, could a maker of a natural soy burger be sued because it might contain GMOs? Or a manufacturer of natural potato chips fried in canola oil? Could a natural products store be taken to court if it sells an item that could contain GMOs? You can see the potential ramifications.

In fact, the currents seem to be moving in that direction, as Kashi Company is currently the subject of a separate lawsuit for the use of the word “natural”—this time because the plaintiffs don’t think the processing of plant sterols, bromelain, high oleic safflower oil and other ingredients is truly natural.

I’m not sure who’s right or wrong in these lawsuits. But, I definitely think GMO-crop producers should be held accountable for letting their seeds spread is key, not companies that buy what they believe are natural ingredients. And, we might need some sort of labeling parameters for saying “natural” on food labels, be it by way of an association’s certification or otherwise. As much as it might be tempting to stand up and say, “I object!” to further labeling criteria, well thought-out and appropriate guidelines may actually save us from expensive and potentially hand-cuffing consequences. WF

Kaylynn Chiarello-Ebner
Editor/Associate Publisher


Published in WholeFoods Magazine,  October 2011