Fast-growing cold-pressed juice brand Suja is facing the potential of a class-action lawsuit that includes claims that the company has misled consumers by labeling its products, which are high pressure processed, as “raw.” Meanwhile, it appears that rival Blueprint, which was hit with a similar false advertising lawsuit last year, has dodged the legal bullet — at least for now.
In the complaint against Suja, dated Feb. 5, 2014, plaintiff Rebecca Heikkila alleges that Suja products are not raw because “they undergo a treatment process known as High Pressure Processing (‘HPP’), which neutralizes the benefits of the live enzymes, probiotics, vitamins, proteins, and nutrients that would otherwise be retained in raw and unpasteurized juice.”
“The juice products are not ‘raw’,” the lawsuit states. “The effects of HPP on the Juice Products are identical to those of traditional pasteurization – inactivated enzymes, inactivated probiotics, altered physical properties of the product, and denatured proteins, among other undesirable qualities. As a result of Defendant’s use of HPP, its Juice Products are nothing more than run-of-the-mill, processed juices, and fail to provide the same nutrients, enzymes, and vitamins that the products have prior to being subjected to HPP.”
Heikkila, who is represented by Bursor & Fisher P.A., alleges that Suja “misrepresents its Juice Products as “Raw” in an effort to appeal to health-conscious, raw-juice-drinking consumers,” and claims that “by doing so, it is able to charge a significant price premium – roughly double the price of similarly sized, but properly labeled, HPP-treated juice products.” She claims that she purchased several bottles of Suja juices for approximately $8.99 per bottle, but would not have purchased the products if she known that they were, “in fact, not ‘Raw’.”
Suja had used “raw” in its labels and marketing until last year when the company removed the word from all references related to the brand and its products. It is unclear, however, exactly when the company did so.
In a statement e-mailed to BevNET, Suja stated that “our labeling is accurate and in full compliance with federal and state laws.” The company noted that “while we have yet to be served, when and if we are, we will defend it vigorously.”
The lawsuit claims that Suja has violated the California’s False Advertising Law and Unfair Competition Law and Consumer Legal Remedies. Heikkila is seeking class action status for the suit, compensatory and punitive damages and other restitution and attorneys’ fees.
As one courtroom door opens, another closes — or does it? Last week, BevNET learned that the proposed class action lawsuit filed against Blueprint — one in which the brand was similarly accused of marketed its HPP juices as “raw” — was dismissed at the plaintiffs’ request, although it’s unclear what prompted their decision to do so.
The notice of voluntary dismissal, dated Dec. 9. 2013, states that “Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(a)(1)(A)(i), Plaintiffs Michael Stark, Reyna Gillead, Kenna Braner, and Oscar Ruiz hereby dismiss without prejudice all claims in this action.” The dismissal does not preclude the plaintiffs, who are also represented by attorneys from Bursor & Fisher P.A., from refiling the lawsuit.
Neither Hain Celestial nor the plaintiffs have issued a statement regarding the dismissal. In response to an e-mail, Blueprint co-founder Erica Huss declined to comment about the case, and calls to Hain Celestial have, as of press time, been unreturned.
While the lawsuits targeted the top two brands in the bottled, cold-pressed juice segment, Suja and Blueprint are certainly not the only companies that have used the word “raw” to label and market high pressure processed products. Nevertheless, promoting beverages as “raw” is something that could attract similar class action lawsuits in the future, according to Justin Prochnow, an attorney with Greenberg Traurig LLP who specializes in regulation affecting the beverage and supplement industries.
In a presentation at BevNET Live Winter 2013, Prochnow noted that while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has specific definitions for descriptive words such as “fresh” and “organic,” the agency is less distinct when it comes to “raw” and “natural,” the latter of which has been the subject of several recent class action lawsuits affecting the food and beverage industry. As a result, Prochnow believes that companies using “raw” to describe their products might be opening themselves up to potential legal action.
“’Raw,’ to me, seems like it’s going to be the next ‘natural,’ as far as litigation,” Prochnow warned. “And the reason for that is that there is no definition of raw like there is no definition of natural. So that leaves it up to plaintiffs’ lawyers to come up with their own definition of raw and it leaves companies to come up with their own definition of raw. And when it’s a plaintiff versus company that generally means you’re not going to reach a decision until it goes to trial… which is two years of fighting back and forth or working out some sort of arrangement.”