Dannon responds to lawsuit challenging its “all-natural” claims

Dannon and the daisy chain. Is yogurt still “all-natural” if the milk comes from cows that are given feed containing GMOs? That’s the subject of a recent false advertising lawsuit against Dannon. 

The short answer, of course, is that pretty much anything can be labeled “all-natural.” The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate the term. Its official stance is that “the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.” Naturally, marketers have done what marketers do: Stretch the label as far as it’ll go. And so far, GMOs have floated through the “all-natural” regulatory sieve.

In papers filed last week, Dannon called that logic “daisy-chained.”

But none of this has stopped plaintiff Polly Podpeskar from suing Dannon for false advertising over its “all-natural” yogurt. The complaint, filed in October of 2016, alleges Dannon’s “all-natural” labels mislead consumers because its cows are given feed containing GMOs. Podpeskar’s argument is based in part on a 2015 Consumer Reports survey that suggests most people expect “natural” to mean “GMO-free.”

In papers filed last week, Dannon called that logic “daisy-chained,” Food Navigator reports. The company hopes the court will dismiss the case or at least wait for FDA to define “all-natural” itself.

Toothless or no, the “all-natural” label and its de facto permissive stance toward GMOs have been the subject of several false advertising lawsuits over the last few years. Plaintiffs have cried “unnatural” over GMO-containing ingredients in Frito-Lay‘s SunChips, Smucker‘s peanut butter, and General Mills’ “100% Natural” Nature Valley granola bars. None of those cases got very far. For the most part, judges have deferred to FDA for a final definition (one that has never come to fruition, though the agency did start to probe the matter in 2015).

Even as Dannon fights the lawsuit, arguing that cows fed with GMOs don’t make unnatural yogurt, it’s quietly removing GMOs from its animal feed. As we reported back in November, the company says it will go “one step further” by the end of 2018 to ensure that “the cows that supply Dannon’s milk for these three flagship brands will be fed non-GMO feed, a first for a leading non-organic yogurt maker. This will involve the conversion of an estimated 80,000 acres of farmland to produce non-GMO crops in order to provide non-GMO feed for the milk used to make Dannon, Oikos and Danimals® brand products.”

Let’s recap: Dannon says GMO-fed cows still make natural yogurt. But it also says it’s removing GMOs from its cow feed because, y’know, the consumer is always right. Sounds kinda like having your Oikos and eating it, too.

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H. Claire Brown is a senior staff writer for The Counter. Her work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, and The Intercept and has won awards from the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing, the New York Press Club, the Newswomen's Club of New York, and others. A North Carolina native, she now lives in Brooklyn.