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Gerber May Avert Suit Over ‘All-Natural’ Claims

(CN) - A California mother must amend her claims that Gerber misleads consumers about the nutritional value of its baby food, a federal judge ruled.

Natalia Bruton hopes to represent a class claiming that Gerber misbrands its products meant for infants and children up to preschool age. The lawsuit challenges the claims on labels for Gerber baby foods that describe the product as "excellence source," "good source," "as healthy as fresh, "no added sugar" and "natural."

The March 2012 class action identified misleading Gerber products as Nature Select 2nd Foods, Yogurt Blends Snack, Toddler Fruit Strips, Graduates Puffs, Graduates Wagon Wheels and Graduates Lil' Crunchies. Labels on the products are allegedly misleading in that they purport to represent a good source of Vitamin C and E, Iron and Zinc, and support "healthy growth and development."

Bruton had sued both Gerber Products and Nestle, which bought the company for $5.5 billion in cash in 2007. She says Gerber controls approximately 70 to 80 percent of the baby food market in the United States.

In a 42-page ruling last week, U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh dismissed the Bruton's claims against Nestle with prejudice.

"Despite Bruton's introductory reference to Gerber and Nestlé USA together as defendants, the rest of the FAC lacks sufficient factual allegations from which the court may infer more than a 'sheer possibility' that Nestlé USA has acted unlawfully," Koh wrote. "Importantly, only Gerber products are at issue in this case. Moreover, aside from the first paragraph, the FAC makes only two references to Nestlé USA throughout the entire complaint."

The ruling also faulted Bruton for having failed to state a claim based on the "100 percent natural" labeling.

"Bruton fails to explain why a label claiming that a product is 'Made with 100% Natural Fruit' plausibly implies that the entire product - which contains ingredients other than fruit - is free of synthetic ingredients or ingredients not normally expected to be in food," Koh wrote (emphasis in original). "Thus, Bruton fails to set forth why a reasonable consumer would find defendants' labels to be false and misleading. Bruton also fails to set forth why she personally was misled by these labels."

Bruton can still amend her claims on this issue under California's unfair competition law, false advertising law and Consumers Legal Remedies Act, according to the ruling.

She fared better with her claims as to the nutrient content "source" claims, "as healthy as fresh" claims and sugar-related labels.

Bruton cannot proceed further, however, with her claims under the Beverly-Song Act and the Manguson-Moss Act. Koh dismissed those counts with prejudice as well as Bruton's claim for restitution based on "unjust enrichment/quasi contract."

The judge additionally barred Bruton from raising claims about products that she did not purchase.


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