The lawsuit by a California woman concerned with the amount of processing that goes into Tropicana orange juice has triggered nearly two dozen similar complaints, putting the citrus industry's current standards at center stage.
The class-action claims against Tropicana's parent company PepsiCo along with those against Coca-Cola and its Simply Orange product will be heard together in court at a date yet to be determined. No monetary damages have been set.
The cases allege Tropicana uses artificial sources to increase the shelf-life of a product it labels as "100 percent natural" — a slogan that's accompanied by the logo of an orange with a straw stem.
About 20 lawsuits have now accumulated against Florida orange juice makers, the majority of which target Tropicana, a company that processes 41 million boxes of fruit annually using one in every three oranges grown in Florida.
The proceedings will get to the heart of a three-year battle between the orange juice industry and opponents of so-called flavor packs, which are used to restore citrus taste and aroma in batches of juice that have been processed.
Tropicana continues to stand by its product.
"Our juice is safe and nutritious and Tropicana remains committed to offering great-tasting 100 percent orange juice with no added sugars or preservatives," said Tropicana spokesman Michael Torres. "We take the faith that consumers place in our products seriously and are committed to full compliance with labeling laws and regulations."
The burst of legal claims were spurred by Angelena Lewis, a Northern California woman upset Tropicana was charging more for its Pure Premium, which she inferred was freshly-squeezed because it was in the grocer's refrigeration cooler.
The 25-page complaint uses prior research on the pasteurization effects of orange juice to argue any product that was freshly squeezed would have a much shorter shelf life.
The lawsuit seeks relief for all purchasers of Tropicana not-from-concentrate juice.
"It's not natural orange juice," the suit states. "It is instead a product that's scientifically engineered in laboratories, not nature, which explains its shelf-life of more than two months."
The lawsuits also refer to flavor packs, which were first brought to the public's attention three years ago in a controversial book authored by Alissa Hamilton.
Because not all oranges taste the same, and they ripen at different times, large juicers blend the fruit together for year-round consistency, sometimes allowing it to process for months.
Coupled with pasteurization, a heating method used to kill spoilage organisms, the process can strip away oxygen and eventually flavors.
Using flavor packs derived from the oranges to restore those characteristics is essential, and commonplace in the industry, said Kristen Gunter, executive director of the Florida Citrus Processors Association.
She believes the Tropicana attacks are part of a broader movement by consumer groups to push environmentally sustainable agriculture by targeting the citrus industry's biggest players.
Most of the practices used by Tropicana are consistent with the standards of every other commercial juicer in Florida, Gunter said.
"They're picking on the wrong industry," she said. "We're one of the most highly standardized industries in the U.S. and that's because we went to Washington and said we wanted definitions for pasteurized, concentrated and freshly squeezed juice so one couldn't paint itself off as another."
The orange juice under legal attack was labeled as pasteurized, a clear warning it was not straight from the grove.
The discrepancy lies with the wording "all natural," which carries no formal definition by either the Federal Trade Commission or Food and Drug Administration.
As long as the product is free of added color, flavor and synthetic substances, it's OK.
The Tropicana lawsuit argues orange juice flavor packs fail in all three cases.
Many national brands are now adopting the "natural" term to attract the health-conscious consumer, but with no clarity as what it means pertaining to packaged food, companies have free reigns to use it however they see fit, Gunter said.
Similar lawsuits have been filed against Snapple, Tostidos, and Ben and Jerry's ice cream, records show.
"Flavor packs in just hearsay," said Dean Mixon, owner of Mixon Fruit Farms, a small orange juice maker in Bradenton.
"But in any business, if you're dishonest about your product, you're not being ethical."