A 2016 lawsuit brought against Hormel Foods is once again in the headlines.  The case, brought by the Animal Defense Legal Fund (ALDF), arose from allegations that Hormel’s “Make the Natural Choice” advertisements violated consumer protection laws by materially misleading consumers. The ALDF objected to Hormel’s advertising claims, which claimed that Natural Choice products were “100% natural”, “all natural,” contain no added preservatives, and utilized terms like, “honest,” “safe,” and “wholesome.”

In early April, however, the lawsuit abruptly ended when the court ruled, among other things, that the ALDF’s claim was pre-empted under federal law. Generally speaking, federal law takes precedence of state and local laws.  As it relates to the Hormel case, the Federal Meat Inspection Act and Poultry Products Inspection Act each contain a pre-emption clause that precludes states from imposing labeling or packaging requirements that differ from the federal requirements. 

FSIS had reviewed and approved Hormel’s Natural Choice labels including the words “natural” and “no preservatives added.”  The court ruled that advertisements containing the same terms and disclaimers approved in labeling, are also pre-empted.  Thus, because the labels were compliant with the law, so were the advertisements and, as a result, the ALDF had no cognizable claim.  Consequently, the court granted summary judgment, and the case ended (subject to any possible future appeals).

Consumers want safe, healthy, products, and that is exactly what Hormel is producing.  Moreover, discerning consumers are perfectly capable of distinguishing between the meaning of various labeling claims, be they “100% natural”, “All Natural”, or others.

Some may argue that companies should not make claims that could theoretically be misconstrued by their customers, but this is a red herring.  Given the natural variances in language, context and perception, anything can be misconstrued.

Conversely, there is a stronger argument that suing companies for marketing their products in compliance with all applicable rules is a waste of money, time and precious judicial resources. Even if there were a compelling argument that FSIS should revisit labeling claims or otherwise act to better inform consumers as to what popular labeling claims mean, there are much better and more effective ways to bring about change than to engage in expensive, time-consuming and futile litigation.

Fortunately, Hormel had the resources to fight this lawsuit through to the end.  A smaller company may have been devastated financially by a three-year legal battle. NP