In approximately 20 lawsuits, the first one filed in New Jersey, lawyers claim the company adds chemically engineered "flavor packs" to its juice, making it taste the same year-round. Lawyers have come together in Washington to argue before a panel of judges about where the lawsuits should be heard as a group.
Tropicana declined to comment but said in a statement that it is committed to full compliance with labeling laws and to producing "great-tasting 100% orange juice."
The orange juice lawsuits are just the latest disputes over "all natural" claims. Over the past several years, a number of major national brands have been attacked for what consumers have called deceptive labeling. Tostitos, SunChips, Snapple and Ben & Jerry's ice cream have all faced similar attacks.
The lawsuits have become common enough that the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents more than 300 food and beverage makers, had a panel that discussed the topic as part of a conference in February. Lawyers representing food and beverage companies have told their clients to be wary. Part of the problem, lawyers agree, is that consumers are looking for healthier products, and companies have responded by creating and branding their products as "all natural."
The Food and Drug Administration, the agency that oversees packaged food labeling in the U.S., has no definition of what counts as "natural." As long as a food labeled "natural" does not contain added color, artificial flavor or synthetic substances, the agency does not object.
That is not enough guidance, some lawyers said.
"The whole natural issue is a mess," said Michael Jacobson, the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public. He and others say the FDA's lack of guidance has left lingering questions.
The lawsuits could get dismissed or go to trial, but companies could agree to settle with consumers and offer product vouchers or rebates. The company that owns Ben & Jerry's and Breyers ice cream, for example, settled "all natural" lawsuits for $7.5 million earlier this year, providing customers who bought flavors like "Chubby Hubby" and "Chunky Monkey" cash rebates of up to $20. The ice cream company also agreed to change its packaging, and that's something lawyers involved in the orange juice lawsuit want too.
"I'd like them to modify their marketing so that consumers can make an informed judgment on their purchases," said Stephen A. Weiss, a lawyer involved in one of the lawsuits against Tropicana.
From the June 4, 2012, Prepared Foods’ Daily Update