Suit Against Nestlé USA for Alleged Misleading Non-GMO Labeling Will Be Tough to Win, Experts Say

nestle products
Image care of Nestlé

A proposed class-action suit filed this summer against Nestlé USA alleges that the company has misled consumers regarding the non-GMO label on some of its products, but experts say that it will be difficult for the accusations to gain traction.

The suit contends that since the label was created by Nestlé and not by a non-profit group like the Non-GMO Project, it is meaningless. Furthermore, the suit notes that since the products contain ingredients like dairy produced by cows fed GMO grains, the label is misleading to those attempting to stay away from all GMO ingredients.

“It’s likely the casual consumer would not know there are two very different standards of GMOs being applied here.”

This label, the suit asserts, “violates the Non-GMO Project standard, which does not allow for its seal of approval to be placed on dairy-based products that could be from animals fed GMO feed.”

“Defendant avoids the Non-GMO Project’s feed standard by using its own, self-created No GMO IngredientsTM seal, thereby creating confusion and deceiving consumers,” the complaint continues.

The suit accuses Nestlé USA of “intentionally” mimicking the appearance of the Non-GMO Project seal, further contributing to confusion.

Nestlé USA has described the suit, filed in California on July 27, as “baseless.” It reports that a third-party verifier – Geneva-based SGS – has verified, tested, and certified its products.

“Our product labels that declare the absence of GMO ingredients are accurate, comply with FDA and USDA regulations, and provide consumers with information to help them make informed purchasing decisions,” the company writes in a statement.

While Non-GMO Project standards preclude products derived from animals fed GMO feeds from sporting its label, the 2016 federal law directing the USDA to establish GMO labeling regulations – and the proposed rule, published in May – allow these foods to be labeled non-GMO.

Some experts also doubt the assertion that the two labels would be confusing to consumers. Attorneys interviewed by FoodNavigator-USA claim that the burden of proof will make this a hard case to win.

“This suit seems like a stretch for several reasons,” William Dance at Tucker Ellis tells the outlet. “For the complaint to gain traction, the plaintiff would have to show that the hypothetical reasonable consumer would see the Nestle ‘No GMO Ingredients’ label and be deceived into believing it actually is or means exactly the same thing as the Non-GMO Project Verified label.”

“Looking at the symbols themselves, Nestle’s own symbol isn’t nearly as colorful as the Non-GMO Project’s,” writes Food Dive. “Both are rectangles of roughly the same size. But even at a glance, the two don’t look overly similar. Whether a consumer would think they are the same is debatable. However, it’s likely the casual consumer would not know there are two very different standards of GMOs being applied here.”

Products highlighted in the suit and purchased by the named plaintiff, Jennifer Latiff, include Lean Cuisine Marketplace frozen dinners and Coffee-Mate Natural Bliss creamer.

“The Non-GMO Project is committed to preserving and building sources of non-GMO products, educating consumers and providing verified non-GMO choices,” a Non-GMO Project rep tells Natural Products Insider. “The Non-GMO Project only authorizes the use of its ‘Non-GMO Project Verified’ certification mark—with the Butterfly—on products that comply with the standard. To truly avoid GMOs, consumers should look for the Butterfly.”

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Emily Monaco
Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American food and culture writer based in Paris. She loves uncovering the stories behind ingredients and exposing the face of our food system, so that consumers can make educated choices. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Vice Munchies, and Serious Eats.