An Effingham County company has been drawn into a national debate over natural foods and how they are defined.
Hodgson Mill has been sued for its use of the term "All Natural" on some of its products.
The federal lawsuit filed in the Southern District of Illinois was brought by Shannah Burton, of St. Clair County. It alleges she bought the company's Buckwheat Pancake Mix because packaging said it was "All Natural." Four others have joined the lawsuit, saying they made similar decisions to pay more for what they thought was an all-natural product.
The term "all natural" is so divisive and difficult to define that the Consumer Union called for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ban its use on all food. The FDA is working on a legal definition of the term — garnering 7,674 public comments.
Several local residents who gathered recently to talk about healthy food options have little faith in the term. They have no connection to the lawsuit, but like to eat healthy food.
"Farmers take care of what God's given them," said Jo Lagerhausen, 47, of Shumway.
Beyond an emotional or religious tie is a financial one, she said. Unhappy animals don't produce as much or as well, she said.
Additionally, relying on federal labels can be disastrous, said Joe Cooper, owner of Heartland Health Foods in Effingham.
"If I had 100 percent organic at 30 percent higher (cost), I'd be hurting," he said. That jump in price comes from the increased cost required to have foods listed as organic by government, he added.
In the Hodgson Mill case, Burton argues that the ingredients used are not natural and that the foods involved probably have genetically modified organisms in them. The ingredients in question include part of what goes into baking powder, a leavening agent created by microbial fermentation and a sugar commonly made from corn. These are all synthetic, Burton argues, which means the food is not "all natural."
The company counters in court documents that many are in common use in all sorts of products, including those registered as organic.
"One of the ingredients of the pancake mix is monocalcium phosphate, a common ingredient in baking powder for more than one hundred years. It gives pancakes fast-rising action that makes them light and fluffy," the company said in court documents.
It is also allowed in organic foods under federal rules, the company argued.
The Hodgson Mill products stocked on a local store's shelves no longer carry the "All Natural" tag.
The plaintiffs argue in their lawsuit that the company doesn't ensure its materials are free of genetically modified organisms. The inclusion of GMOs would make the product no longer "All Natural," they argued, and it could be in the main part of the mix or as an additive. The company replied it had no information if the materials involved included GMO products.
The company does carry a number of verified non-GMO products, and the owner's farm produces some non-GMO corn.
Both sides included references to the fact the FDA has never stated what "All Natural" means in a legal sense.
"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 wrote in a call for comment about the definition.
Judge Michael Reagan condensed the issue when the company tried to have the case dropped.
The company argues "that there is no commonly accepted definition of 'all natural,' that the ‘synthetic’ ingredients are so ubiquitous that no reasonable consumer could miss them or be aggrieved by them, and that ‘organic’ products (labeled under higher standards) also contain the ‘synthetic’ ingredients, among other things. The Court finds that these arguments are better left to a jury, because the determination of whether or not a reasonable consumer could be misled is an intricate question of fact that is best informed by a pool of members of the community," he wrote.
The people suing want it to become a class action lawsuit for everyone who bought the products. They seek repayment and compensatory damages in excess of $50,000.
Assisting in Burton's case is a team of three lawyers. One is Stuart Cochran, a Dallas-based attorney. His biography includes the note that he "has recently and frequently been in the news regarding class action cases relating to fraudulent 'all natural' labels on food and personal-care products."
Also involved is Matthew Armstrong of St. Louis and David Nelson of Belleville. None could be reached for comment.
Mark Favazza, an attorney for Hodgson Mills, said he was not authorized to comment.
Graham Milldrum can be reached at 217-247-7151 ext, 131. Or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org