FoodFacts.com has long held the opinion that many of the products on our grocery store shelves are labeled in a misleading fashion, and don’t actually give consumers a clear representation of the products held in their boxes, cans and bags. Our community has always agreed with us. And it does appear that a controversy may be brewing over this practice.
Information has come to light that the same lawyers who brought millions of dollars in lawsuits against big tobacco companies (and won tremendous settlements form the likes of R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris) have been busy filing 25 new cases against food manufacturers, including ConAgra Foods, Heinz, General Mills and PepsiCo. These suits have been filed over the last four months and are claiming that these food manufacturers are mislabeling products and ingredients. Currently there are also lawsuits regarding Pam cooking spray, Swiss Miss cocoa products and some Hunt’s canned tomatoes.
While the food manufacturers are claiming that these are frivolous lawsuits and are strictly financially motivated, the lawyers are claiming that these cases could result in a cost of billions of dollars to the food companies.
For example, two mothers have brought a lawsuit against the makers of Nutella, claiming they were deceived into believing that the chocolate hazelnut spread was healthy for their kids. A similar suit was brought against PepsiCo three years ago accusing them of false advertising for Cap ‘n Crunch Crunch Berries cereal because it does not contain actual berries. The court felt that a “reasonable consumer would not be deceived into believing that the product contained a berry that does not exist.” But is that really an analogous case? Of course, there are no such things as “crunch berries,” but Nutella certainly advertises itself as a healthy product that moms can feel good about serving their families. As a note, the product does not rate well on the FoodFacts.com website for a number of reasons.
In addition to the lawyers who filed suit against Big Tobacco, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has also filed suits against General Mills and McNeil Nutritionals over claims they make on Nature Valley and Splenda Essentials products. Both PepsiCo and Coca-Cola are faced with many suits regarding the 100% natural claims on many of their products, as well.
The focus seems to be – as we would have suspected – on products that make claims of “natural” or “Healthy.” These claims, often, seem to be subjective. And since these products aren’t subjected to the same federal standards as organics, the claims really do reflect the purposes of the food manufacturer and not the nutrition labels or the ingredient lists.
With obesity at epidemic levels in this country, and food additives being linked every day to increasing health problems, FoodFacts.com wonders whether or not this will go the way of the old tobacco lawsuits. Initially, the courts declared smoking a personal choice that consumers make, hopefully understanding the health risks they are inflicting on themselves. It wasn’t until the tobacco companies were sued on behalf of states on the basis of the hundreds of millions of dollars caring for sick smokers that the settlements were won by the lawyers.
It does appear that this is a new trend that is just beginning to emerge. It’s a trend that may cost offending food manufacturers a tremendous amount of money and cause them to actually pull products from the shelves, until they rebrand, rename or redevelop many of their products so that they accurately depict nutritional value and ingredients used.
FoodFacts.com thinks that this is a trend worth watching and we’ll be keeping you informed as we discover more about what companies are being sued and why. In the meantime, here are two links for you to read and discover more about what’s happening: http://www.bendbulletin.com/article/20120819/NEWS0107/208190394/ and http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/19/business/lawyers-of-big-tobacco-lawsuits-take-aim-at-food-industry.html?_r=2&pagewanted=1&smid=tw-share