Sargento natural cheese

Sargento Foods in the eye of the storm

There has been an upsurge of litigation in the past few years challenging use of the term natural on food products, including the recent class-action suit brought against Sargento Foods Inc., Plymouth, Wis., in May 2017. The plaintiff argues that Sargento’s natural cheeses are not natural because they are made using milk from cows given G.M.O. feed and/or administered artificial growth hormones and/or raised in particular “non-natural” ways.

The defense argues the claims have no legal merit and are completely speculative. 

“This is not a typical natural labeling case,” said Angel Garganta, partner at law firm Venable L.L.P., San Francisco, Sargento’s defense attorney. “Sargento labels its cheese as natural cheese because that is an industry-standard term used to distinguish between the two main types of cheese sold in the dairy industry. This includes natural cheese, such as cheddar, and processed cheese, such as American cheese.”

Mr. Garganta said the plaintiff focuses on the word natural on Sargento’s labeling but ignores both the context in which the word appears as part of the term “natural cheese” and that “natural cheese” is a well-defined term in the dairy industry and recognized by federal agencies. He explained that unlike in other litigation where the term natural is used as an adjective describing the quality of the product, when it comes to cheese, natural is a proper noun defining what the cheese is and distinguishing it from what it is not, i.e., processed cheese. 

Sargento also maintains that the plaintiff’s arguments are speculative. This is why a motion has been filed to dismiss the case. At the very least, Sargento believes a stay on the suit is required until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration completes its regulatory review of the term.

“If not dismissed, this case should be stayed under the primary jurisdiction doctrine because the F.D.A. is actively reviewing the exact issues raised in the complaint,” Mr. Garganta said. “Multiple natural lawsuits have been stayed by the courts on these grounds. F.D.A. may eventually define the term natural and separately, or as a subset, define the term natural cheese.”