The Ninth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a class-action lawsuit that alleged Trader Joe’s Manuka Honey product labeling was misleading. Trader Joe’s marketed its store brand Manuka honey as “100% New Zealand Manuka Honey” or “New Zealand Manuka Honey.” Plaintiffs claimed that these labels were misleading because the honey only consisted of between 57.3% and 62.6% honey derived from Manuka flower nectar. Plaintiffs alleged that the label and ingredient list created a “false impression” that the Trader Joe’s honey contained a higher percentage of honey derived from Manuka.

The FDA provides guidelines about honey that allow for the labeling of honey by its “chief floral source” which means the principal source of honey is a single floral source. Trader Joe’s Manuka honey met the standard of the FDA definition. Therefore, the Trader Joe’s label was accurate because there was no dispute as to whether all of the honey was technically Manuka honey.

Despite the fact that the front label was accurate under the FDA guidelines, Plaintiffs argued that consumers could still be misled into thinking the honey was “100%” derived from the Manuka flower nectar. The court understood that there was an ambiguity surrounding the meaning of the “100%” claim. The district court concluded, and the Ninth Circuit agreed, that other available information about the honey would “quickly dissuade a reasonable consumer” from believing the honey was 100% derived from Manuka.

A reasonable consumer may look at information beyond the physical label to learn about the product itself and its packaging. The court found that a reasonable consumer of Manuka honey would be dissuaded from Plaintiffs’ interpretation of “100%” based on three key “contextual inferences” from the product: (1) it is impossible to create honey 100% from Manuka (or other floral source); (2) the low price of the product; and (3) the presence of the “10+” on the label. On the first point, bees forage and therefore it is impossible to ever have honey derived from one source. On the second, Manuka honey is a fancy product, and the fact that it only cost $13.99 should indicate it was not made solely from Manuka flower nectar. And, third, Manuka honey producers have created a scale that grades the honey based on the purity of the Manuka honey. Trader Joe’s only has a “10+” out of 26+.

Therefore, a reasonable consumer would not reach the conclusion that “100% New Zealand Manuka Honey” is making the claim that the product consists exclusively of honey derived from Manuka. Rather, a reasonable consumer would conclude that the “100%” claim means that it is “100% honey whose chief floral source is the Manuka plan” (an accurate statement).

Takeaway: Context clues matter. A reasonable consumer can be expected to look beyond just the wording on the label in front of them. Be conscious of ambiguous language; just because an advertisement is ambiguous, does not automatically mean that it is misleading or deceptive.