More and more consumers are accusing food and beverage manufacturers of deceptive labeling practices, especially for touting products as “all natural” or “organic” when they are not. To date, most of the lawsuits have been filed in California. But recently the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington had the opportunity to weigh in on the issue. Harold Maple brought a class action lawsuit against Costco for labeling its VitaRain Tropical Mango Vitamin Enhanced Water Beverage as natural. Mr. Maple claimed that because the beverage contained artificial ingredients, the labeling was misleading to customers and, therefore, violated Washington’s Consumer Protection Act. The Eastern District Court dismissed his case and on May 9, 2016, the Ninth Circuit agreed with that decision, bringing the lawsuit to a final end. In reaching its decision to dismiss Mr. Maple’s class action lawsuit with prejudice, the Ninth Circuit found that (1) as a matter of law, VitaRain’s name is not “likely to mislead a reasonable consumer” and (2) Mr. Maple did not allege that he read the label beyond the product’s name. The Court explained that “the term ‘Vita’ could mean many things, rain could not be an actual ingredient, and the label contains no misleading statements.”
The Ninth Circuit’s decision left for another day any guidance on precisely what type of ”natural” or “organic” mislabeling might be found to be “likely to mislead a reasonable consumer.” But it did provide a first glimpse into how Washington courts might treat such a claim, particularly when, as here, the label at issue is not deceptive on its face.
The case is Harold Maple v. Costco Wholesale Corporation, case numbers 13-36089, 14-35038 and 14-35059, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.