- General Mills said it will stop labeling its Nature Valley granola bars as "100% natural" after the company settled a lawsuit filed by three consumer groups, The Hill reported.
- The groups — Beyond Pesticides, Organic Consumers Association and Moms Across America — alleged in a 2016 complaint that the company's popular granola bar contained trace amounts of the weed-killing chemical glyphosate.
- General Mills said in a statement that “Nature Valley is confident in the accuracy of its label." The company did not admit or deny any wrongdoing, according to Bloomberg. Mike Siemienas, a company spokesman, told Reuters that General Mills settled to avoid the cost and distraction of litigation and to focus on making Nature Valley products "with 100% whole grain oats."
This settlement comes two weeks after a jury awarded a California man $289 million because glyphosate in Monsanto's Roundup weed killer likely caused his cancer. For General Mills, the CPG giant is no stranger to lawsuits involving glyphosate. A week ago, a Florida woman sued General Mills for an alleged failure to reveal the presence of glyphosate in its Cheerios cereal products.
It sounds like General Mills simply wanted to get this latest complaint off the books and move on. Nature Valley granola bars are the No. 1 seller in its category, according to Euromonitor data cited by Bloomberg, and the company sold $985.1 million worth of them last year. The longer a legal dispute drags on, the more potential there is for harming the brand in the eyes of consumers — and jeopardizing future sales.
The food giant has prevailed in similar lawsuits. A Minnesota federal judge dismissed a class-action suit last year making the same allegations about the "100% natural" label claim after he found the plaintiffs' argument implausible.
Other oat-based granola bars may be able to benefit from the situation, particularly if they use organic oats or other grains with a lower chance of having residues of the weed killer. Recent testing by the Environmental Working Group found one-third of samples made with organically grown oats contained glyphosate but at levels "well below" the group's health benchmark of 160 parts per billion (ppb). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's maximum allowable glyphosate levels in grains is 30,000 ppb.
EWG's tests detected no glyphosate in General Mills' Cascadian Farm Organic Harvest Berry granola bar, for example, while its Nature Valley Crunchy Oats 'n Honey Granola Bars showed 120 to 340 ppb.
Granola and other snack bars are popular products due to their convenience and their recognizable, better-for-you ingredients. However, the term "natural" has always been a tricky label claim because it has no official definition. Consumers have different interpretations of what it means, so it might be smart for food and beverage manufacturers to quit using the term in their marketing.
In March, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said the agency was continuing to work on the definition for "natural" in order to give consumers sufficient guidance — possibly via an icon or symbol on product packaging.
"It’s clear that consumers increasingly want to know what is in the food they eat and whether it is 'natural,'" Gottlieb said in a speech. "We recognize that consumers are trusting in products labeled as 'natural' without clarity around the term. Just like other claims made on products regulated by FDA, we believe the 'natural' claim must be true and based in science."
General Mills settled a lawsuit in 2014 over use of the phrase "all-natural" on some of its Nature Valley products. The agreement prevents the company from describing products that contain high fructose corn syrup or maltodextrin as "natural." A year later, Diamond Foods settled a lawsuit by agreeing to compensate consumers who bought Kettle Brand products that contained a "natural" or similar label even though the products appeared to contain unnatural, synthetic and/or artificial ingredients.
More recently, Monster Beverage settled a class-action complaint alleging that some of its products had "natural" label claims but contained synthetic or artificial ingredients and/or added colors. PepsiCo's Frito-Lay division and Kellogg were recently sued for false advertising by a California couple claiming that label claims on Pringles and Lay's Salt and Vinegar chips led them to believe the products are "all natural" snacks rather than ones containing artificial flavors.
Litigation based on label claims is becoming a lot more common. According to a study by the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, there were more than 425 active cases in federal courts between 2015 and 2016, while there were only 19 cases in 2008. With consumers scrutinizing labels more than ever, food and beverage makers wanting to avoid legal challenges should make sure their claims are as truthful as possible.