Truvia sweetener on display at a supermrket shelf in Baltimore, MD.
Truvia sweetener on display at a supermrket shelf in Baltimore, MD. (Diego M. Radzinschi/NLJ)

In litigation that could cost Cargill Inc. millions of dollars, the Minnesota-based food company is fighting to keep the sugar substitute Truvia on supermarket shelves labeled as a “natural” sweetener.

Lawyers for Cargill appeared in federal courts across the United States during the past several months to resolve consumer claims that the company deceived them about the composition of the product, marketed as “Nature’s Calorie-Free Sweetener.”

Consumers filed complaints in federal courts in California, Florida, Hawaii and Minnesota asserting that Truvia mainly consists of a synthetic ingredient and that the stevia plant extract used in the sweetener is made through a chemical process.

The class actions have been consolidated in the U.S. District Court for Hawaii, where a status conference is set for this summer. Lawyers for the plaintiffs filed an amended complaint on May 12 urging the court to order Cargill to end its “untrue and misleading advertising” of Truvia and to pay damages.

The plaintiffs didn’t specify how much money they’re seeking. In the Minnesota case, they requested $5 million — a sum that U.S. District Senior Judge Richard Kyle in St. Paul rejected as potentially not high enough to compensate ­consumers. He suggested the damages could exceed $100 million.

“The main thing is when something is labeled natural, it is really important the consumer knows what that means,” said William “Tony” Baird, an Agoura Hills, Calif., attorney at Marlin & Saltzman, which represents the plaintiffs with Col­chester, Conn.-based Scott & Scott and other law firms.Stephen Safranski, a partner at Minneapolis-based Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, which has handled most of the litigation for Cargill, declined to comment on the cases.

Cargill general counsel Laura Witte declined to talk about the litigation beyond saying that her company stands behind its Truvia labeling, which appears on packets and multiple-serving containers of the sweetener for sale at stores throughout the country.

“We continue to believe that the current labeling of Truvia is truthful, accurate and complies with labeling laws,” Witte said in a written statement.

At the heart of the dispute is the meaning of “natural,” a word federal regulators haven’t done much to clarify. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t have a definition for “natural” but the agency says it doesn’t object to its use as long as it isn’t applied to food that has “added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances.”

“From a food-science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth,” the agency says on its website.

Plaintiffs attorneys maintain, however, that it’s clear that the sweetener isn’t natural. Truvia’s packaging says its stevia leaf extract comes from “dried stevia leaves [that] are steeped in water, similar to making tea.”

The consumers’ attorneys contend Truvia is made with a “highly chemically processed and purified form of stevia leaf extract” that makes up only 1 percent of the sweetener, according to an amended complaint filed by Scott & Scott attorney Joseph Guglielmo.

The sugar substitute primarily consists of erythritol, a synthetic, according to the lawsuit.

“A reasonable consumer understands a natural product to be one that does not contain man-made, synthetic ingredients, is not subject to harsh chemical processes and is only minimally processed,” Guglielmo wrote in court papers.

TRADE GROUP WEIGHS IN

As the litigation continues, a top industry trade group that includes Cargill and other major food companies is trying to put an end to similar cases. Karin Moore, general counsel of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, in December sent a letter to the FDA calling on it to determine whether food ingredients developed through the use of special technology are natural.

“FDA’s involvement in this issue is needed to ensure consistent and uniform rules for foods with ‘natural’ claims and ingredients derived from biotechnology,” Moore wrote. “Despite the agency’s existing guidance, the nation’s courts have been inundated with cases in which claims have been made concerning ‘natural’ labeling and ingredients derived from biotechnology.”

In 2013, consumers filed 58 cases related to the use of the word on labels, according to Food Navigator-USA.com, a news site that covers industry trends. And they’ve been winning. As recently as May 2, plaintiffs secured a $5 million settlement with Kashi Co. in a class action that alleged the cereal company falsely advertised its products as “all natural” or contained “nothing artificial” when they had synthetic and artificial ingredients. The deal required Kashi to change the labeling on some of its ­products.

Although Cargill lawyer Safranski wouldn’t get into the details of the Truvia litigation, he acknowledged in an interview that natural-labeling disputes pose a problem for food companies.

“I can’t think of any word in the English language that has spawned more litigation than natural,” he said.

Contact Andrew Ramonas at aramonas@alm.com.