In an interesting development in the legal world, federal courts across the country, especially those in the Northern District of California, have found themselves dealing with dozens of food labeling class action suits. Though you might not think food labels would involve much litigation, 28 class action labeling suits have been filed since 2012 as plaintiffs’ lawyers direct their attention to the food industry.
The suits, which have targeted a wide array of food categories, including juice, yogurt, granola bars, ice cream and even cooking sprays, are increasingly being launched by firms that were involved in the earlier wave of tobacco litigation. The suits that have been filed thus far tend to focus on supposedly healthy foods, calling into question those products that are labeled “natural” or which companies market as free in trans fat or sugar.
Labeling litigation began to receive attention after several successful suits resulted in multimillion-dollar settlements. In 2009, Dannon settled a case for $35 million over claims against its Activia brand yogurt and just last year Ferrero settled a case concerning its Nutella hazelnut spread for $3 million.
The main focus of many of the cases filed so far has been against those claiming to manufacture “all natural” products. One issue that complicates the matter is that the Food and Drug Administration has never specifically defined what the phrase “natural” really means. This ambiguity allows food companies to stretch the definition to the point of absurdity.
Claims filed by plaintiffs’ attorneys have targeted companies whose “natural” products contain synthetic compounds such as high fructose corn syrup or citric acid. The food companies respond by arguing the products are natural, something many experts question. Though corn syrup might start out as corn, it doesn’t mean it is natural and suggesting otherwise amounts to deceptive marketing. Even defense attorneys are warning their corporate clients to shy away from labeling foods as “natural” if the ingredient list appears to contradict that claim.
Labeling suits focus not only on misleading labels, but labels that contain wording the FDA specifically declares unacceptable. One good example involves foods that list “evaporated cane juice” as an ingredient instead of simply admitting that the product contains sugar. This kind of wordplay is intentionally misleading according to guidance issued by the FDA and should not be tolerated among manufacturers attempting to hide information from consumers.
In the dozens of class actions filed against food manufacturers, few if any claim plaintiffs have suffered physical injury as a result of the misleading labels. Instead, the suits point out the companies owe consumers who were tricked into buying products they might not otherwise have purchased due to inaccurate food labeling. Though it takes a lot of hard work to build a winning case, federal judges appear to be willing to let plaintiffs try as more and more labeling claims make their way to court.