In August, I reported on a lawsuit against ConAgra for deceptive labeling of its Wesson brand of cooking oils as "natural." The case alleges that the products contain genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), which are not by any stretch of the imagination, natural. A similar case was recently filed in California (by the same class action firm - Milberg) against Frito-Lay -- the snacks division of food and beverage giant PepsiCo.
As I noted before, the implications of such a case is potentially far-reaching, given how many brands containing GMO ingredients are currently touting the meaningless natural label. The Food and Drug Administration has so far refused to give us much guidance, despite the increasing trend by marketers to obfuscate and confuse consumers.
This case could especially rock the salty snacks world given the huge reach of Frito-Lay products, along with parent company PepsiCo's ongoing efforts to retool its image away from junk food toward healthy goodness, aka "better-for-you" foods. One year ago, Frito-Lay promised that "approximately 50 percent of its product portfolio will be made with all natural ingredients, including three of its biggest brands," Lays, Tositos, and SunChips.
What does that mean?
I tried to find out at the American Dietetic Association annual meeting in September, where PepsiCo had two massive expo booths, one just for Frito-Lay where various "natural" snacks were on display. I asked, how did they measure "50 percent" - half of what? I was told, half the total tonnage of Frito-Lay products would be natural. (I imagined giant scales to ensure compliance.)
What does "natural" mean to the king of salty snacks? From its website:
The products made with all natural ingredients do not have any artificial or synthetic ingredients, and they do not contain any artificial flavors or artificial preservatives, or ingredients such as monosodium glutamate (MSG), yet still have the great taste consumers expect from Frito-Lay.
The lawsuit would beg to differ. According to the complaint, six varieties of Tostitos and four SunChips flavors, each labeled "made with ALL NATURAL ingredients," are deceiving consumers through package labeling and advertising because the products contain genetically-modified corn and vegetable oils (including corn, soybean, and canola oils).
To back up the claim, the complaint cites Monsanto, the company everyone loves to hate for its promotion of genetic engineering technology. On its website, Monsanto defines GMO as: "Plants or animals that have had their genetic makeup altered to exhibit traits that are not naturally theirs." The complaint concludes that "the reasonable consumer assumes" that a process whereby seeds are swapped across species is not "all natural."
Given that Frito-Lay is the nation's largest snack producer, and half of all Frito-Lay products are labeled "natural," that's a lot of tonnage to defend. I am sure the company has a few good lawyers at the ready. Stay tuned.