Updates: 4 natural pet food lawsuits from 2017 to 2019

While some of these legal issues have been resolved, others continue in courts.

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(Iridi | BigStock.com)
(Iridi | BigStock.com)

Similar lawsuits over natural claims in pet food marketing and labeling occurred repeatedly during the past few years. While some of these legal issues have been resolved, others continue in courts.

The lawsuits involved Ainsworth Pet Nutrition, Champion Petfoods and J.M. Smucker.


Nutrish lawsuit over natural dog food label

  • Case title: Christina Grimm v. APN, Inc. et al
  • Case number: 8:17-cv-00356-JVS-JCG 
  • Presiding judge: James V. Selna
  • Date filed: 02/28/2017

Natural pet food claims by Ainsworth’s Rachael Ray Nutrish came under fire in a class action lawsuit filed in a California federal court in late March 2017. Lawyers representing Nutrish called for Judge James Selna to dismiss the case the next month.

However, the judge set aside, or vacated, that request on May 5, while granting the plaintiff’s request to amend their complaint.

In January 2018, Ainsworth Pet Nutrition lawyers filed a motion to stay this case until the California Department of Public Health developed an official rule on the term “natural” in pet food labeling. The judge granted the motion.

As of January 2019, the most recent court reported stated that the motion to stay remained in effect, since California officials had not yet published a rule for when pet food could be labeled natural.



Lawsuit alleged heavy metals, BPA in Champion pet foods

  • Case title: Loeb v. Champion Petfoods USA Inc et al
  • Case number: 2:18-cv-00494-JPS
  • Presiding judge: J P Stadtmueller
  • Date filed: 03/28/2018

On Feb. 7, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit against Champion Petfoods. The U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Wisconsin judge dismissed the case with prejudice, meaning that the case cannot be brought back to court.

In March 2018, a dog owner in Wisconsin filed a lawsuit against Champion Petfoods alleging that lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury contaminated the company’s dog foods. She alleged that this meant Champion had “deceptively marketed their dog food as having various high quality attributes when this was not the case,” according to court documents.

The amounts of the heavy metals were in the microgram per kilogram range, which may be below tolerable levels established by the National Research Council. Such levels of heavy metals may be unavoidable since the chemicals exist in the natural environment.

In April 2018, Champion Petfoods filed a motion to dismiss the class action lawsuit 

In February of this year, U.S. District Judge J.P. Stadtmueller has granted Champion Petfoods’ motion for summary judgment and dismissed the plaintiff’s claims.

"While it is undisputed that Orijen contains heavy metals, plaintiff has failed to create a genuine dispute as to whether the heavy metal concentrations therein are excessive or dangerous," wrote Stadtmueller in court documents.

The court also noted that it was not presented with any facts that connected the plaintiff’s dogs consumption of Orijen products to any possible illness.

“The court’s opinion is consistent with Champion Petfoods’ position that its foods are safe and that the trace amounts of heavy metals are naturally occurring in the healthy ingredients used by Champion,” said Champion Petfoods trial counsel Dave Coulson, in a press release.


Farm chemical lawsuit against Rachael Ray Nutrish dog food

  • Case title: Parks v. Ainsworth Pet Nutrition, LLC
  • Case number: 1:18-cv-06936-LLS
  • Presiding judge: Louis L. Stanton
  • Date filed: 08/01/2018

Ainsworth Pet Nutrition still faces a class action lawsuit, filed in August 2018, over the alleged presence of glyphosate, an herbicide, in the company’s Rachael Ray Nutrish line of premium dog food. The lawsuit was filed by Markeith Parks of Bronx County, New York in the United States District Court Southern District of New York.

The lawsuit claims that Nutrish engaged in deceptive labeling, marketing and sale of the dog food by claiming that the product was natural pet food. A laboratory contracted by the plaintiff allegedly found glyphosate in the dog food. The plaintiff stated that since glyphosate is not a natural ingredient, the labeling is false. The plaintiff also alleged that Nutrish was aware of the presence of the agricultural chemical, which is commonly known by Monsanto’s brand name Roundup.

“The exact source of glyphosate in the Products is known only to Rachael Ray Nutrish and its suppliers,” wrote the plaintiff in court documents. “Rachael Ray Nutrish’s false advertising was knowing and intentional.”



Big Heart Pet Brands faces lawsuit over natural claims

  • Case title: Acquard et al v. Big Heart Pet Brands, Inc.
  • Case number: 6:19-cv-06021 
  • Presiding judge: Unassigned
  • Date filed: 01/07/2019

A class action lawsuit filed against Big Heart Pet Brands, owned by J.M. Smucker, was terminated.

“Case is unassigned as it was opened in error by attorney,” according to court records.

Two pet food purchasers in New York had alleged that Big Heart falsely markets Nature's Recipe brand pet foods as all natural. The plaintiffs claimed that the presence of certain chemicals renders this claim incorrect.

“In fact, the Products contain non-natural, artificial, and/or synthetic ingredients including but not limited to sodium tripolyphosphate (‘STPP’), synthetic vitamins and minerals, citric acid, and lactic acid,” wrote lawyers representing the pet food buyers in legal papers filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of New York on Jan. 7.

The plaintiffs claimed that if they had been aware that Nature's Recipe dog and cat foods contained these ingredients, they would not have purchased the products or would have paid less for them.

However, in the product photos submitted with the court documents, the words “with added vitamins, minerals and nutrients” appear on the packages. Earlier, similar class action lawsuits suggest that this wording may be important.

Pet food industry analyst on natural pet food labels

Although he was unfamiliar with the particulars of these class action lawsuits, a pet food industry analyst assessed the legal issues involved in an earlier article.

“The main problem is that AAFCO has defined ‘natural’ for dogs and cats. However, no definition exists for human foods,” Ryan Yamka, PhD, told Petfood Industry. “I wouldn't be surprised if you see this happen again within the industry.”

Yamka pointed to AAFCO Official Publication 2017 page 148. Those guideline would allow "natural with added vitamins, minerals and trace nutrients.”

“The disclaimer ‘with added vitamins, minerals and trace nutrients’ would need to appear with the largest or most prominent use of the term ‘natural’ on each panel,” he said. “For example: front of bag, back of bag, etc.”

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