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Missouri Court of Appeals Holds Ingredient List Label on Product Not an Absolute Defense to Claim for Deceptive Merchandising Practices

Murphy v. Stonewall Kitchen, LLC, No. 104072 (November 8, 2016)

The Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District, reversed a trial court’s order dismissing an action on the grounds that an ingredient list label was a complete legal defense to a claim for deceptive merchandising practices because the consumer could not reasonably be deceived or misled by the packaging.  The court held that the presence of an ingredient list label on a product is not an absolute defense, though  it may be used as evidence in support of a defense at trial.  This decision may be of interest to product manufacturers and their counsel, as well as to consumers.

The defendant sold a cupcake mix in a package that described the product as being “all-natural” when, in fact, it contained a certain chemical used in commercial baking.  The plaintiff filed suit for false, deceptive, and misleading practices under the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act (MMPA).  The defendant filed a motion to dismiss, arguing the packaging was not deceptive because the chemical was specifically listed as an ingredient on the package label (often referred to as the “ingredient list defense”).  The trial court granted the motion, relying on Missouri federal court precedent and reasoning that the presence of the label identifying the chemical as an ingredient made it implausible a reasonable consumer would believe the “all-natural” representation on the product.  The plaintiff appealed the dismissal.

On appeal, the court noted a second decision from another Missouri federal court reaching the opposite result and followed that rationale.  The court found that how a reasonable consumer would interpret the term “all-natural”, whether a reasonable consumer would actually read the ingredient list, and whether the defendant’s labeling practice was deceptive were all fact questions for the jury.  Though the presence of the ingredient list might be relevant to the defense at trial, the court held that the ingredient list cannot, as a matter of law, defeat an MMPA claim.