Dismissal Granted in Mott’s Natural Applesauce False Advertising Suit

On Tuesday, plaintiff Hawyuan Yu’s amended class-action complaint against Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, Inc. and Mott’s, LLP was dismissed without leave to amend. The false advertising suit alleged that the defendants misled consumers by selling applesauce and apple juices labeled as “Natural” and/or labeled that they were comprised of “All Natural Ingredients,” though the products contained trace amounts of the pesticide acetamiprid.

The court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the initial complaint on all five claims with leave to amend on Jun. 18, 2019. Thereafter, the case stayed until this February because of ongoing U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulatory proceedings concerning the definition of the term ‘natural’ on food labeling. According to this week’s order, the FDA proceeding is still ongoing.

According to Judge Beth Labson Freeman of the Northern District of California, the plaintiff’s amended complaint was substantially similar to his first in form and substance, and both alleged the same causes of action under California law. Reportedly, the main difference was the addition of two “generic surveys,” about consumer expectations regarding the contents of food products that bear the word “natural” on their label.

The court considered the plaintiff’s primary theory of liability, that the “natural” food labels affixed to the defendants’ products, should, in view of a reasonable consumer, meet a higher standard than competing products not advertised as ‘natural.’ Too, the plaintiff contended, reasonable consumers do not expect such products to contain traces of a synthetic insecticide. The defendants argued that “the amended complaint still does not plausibly allege that a ‘reasonable consumer’ interprets the terms ‘Natural’ and ‘All Natural Ingredients’ to mean ‘the utter absence of residual pesticides,’” among other contentions.

The court agreed on this ground, finding that the amended complaint failed to “allege that a reasonable consumer would be deceived, as required by the California causes of action.” It explained that this was so as a matter of law because the same theory has been rejected by the weight of authority. Additionally, as to the consumer studies the plaintiff cited, the court held that the recent Ninth Circuit ruling in Becerra v. Dr. Pepper/Seven Up, Inc., “made clear that this addition alone will not do.” Thus, the plaintiff’s three state law claims and corollary breach of warranty and unjust enrichment causes of action fell without leave to amend because the court determined that a tertiary amendment would be futile.

As to the plaintiff’s claim for injunctive relief, prohibiting the defendants from using such language on applesauce and juice labels in the future, the court held, among other things, that the plaintiff had not persuaded it of the likelihood of future harm. Judge Freeman explained, “[g]iven what Plaintiff knows about Defendants’ products and his preference for applesauce and apple juice free of trace amounts of pesticides, the Court does not find it plausible that he would be misled into purchasing these Products in the future.”

The plaintiff is represented by the Richman Law Group, and the defendants by Perkins Coie.