Until the company rebranded its line of coconut water in the summer of 2015, Harmless Harvest declared its products to be “100% raw” and “100% organic.” But a lawsuit filed with the United States District Court in New York on Dec. 23 claims that math didn’t add up.
The plaintiffs, represented by New York City-based Lee Litigation Group, alleged that a significant portion of the coconuts sourced from Thailand by Harmless Harvest for use in their 100% Raw Coconut Water line (now known as Harmless Coconut Water) are not in fact organic.
On Tuesday Harmless Harvest announced in a statement emailed to BevNET that it had agreed to settle the lawsuit, citing a desire to avoid a long and costly legal battle. However, the company “vigorously” denied any wrongdoing and liability and asserted the legitimacy of its organic certification. The terms of the settlement are confidential.
The lawsuit made several allegations about the size and production capabilities of Harmless Harvest’s organic coconut suppliers. The suit states that as of 2015 Harmless Harvest was purchasing 300,000 coconuts a day from Ratchaburi, Thailand. However, the plaintiffs claim that area’s certified organic coconut producers are only capable of producing half that amount.
The suit also claims Harmless Harvest’s use of the term “raw” was misleading and alleges that the company’s organic certifier Bioagricert, an independent certifier based in Europe and accredited by the 1990 U.S. Organic Food Productions Act, did not conduct proper inspections of farm practices.
In a call with BevNET Tuesday, Harmless Harvest representatives said the company’s initial instinct was to fight the lawsuit but that the company was concerned about the cost of a prolonged court case.
They noted that Lee Litigation Group has a history of filing class action lawsuits against food and beverage companies and cites successful settlements against numerous restaurants and food chains on its website. Harmless Harvest Director of Communications Whitney Spielfogel said that Harmless Harvest did not know where Lee Litigation Group obtained supplier data cited in the lawsuit and said the specifics of the company’s coconut imports are not publicly available.
“Like so many other food, beverage and consumer product companies facing distracting and unwarranted lawsuits today, we have reached a settlement with a plaintiffs’ law firm with the best interests of our consumers, employees and suppliers in mind,” said Spielfogel in the emailed statement. “If we had unlimited time and financial resources we would fight this case to the end in court, confident in the knowledge that we would prevail because our products are safe, wholesome and organic.”
Harmless Harvest had ceased using the terms “raw” and “100% organic” on its bottles and website by the time the suit was filed. The company said the decision to remove the terms was unrelated to legal concerns. In August 2015, co-founder Justin Guilbert told BevNET the term “raw” was removed so as not to “dilute the message” around the brand and to instead focus on the quality of the coconuts.
Spielfogel said the company stands by and will continue to use the USDA Organic label going forward.