Lawyers Shift Litigation to Big Food

Articles
August 30, 2012

Lawyers Shift Litigation to Big Food

The Food Institute this week reports that more than a dozen lawyers who filed lawsuits against big tobacco initiated 25 cases against some of our nation's largest and best known food companies in search of awards or settlements to rival the prizes earned from litigation against big tobacco firms.

The Food Institute this week reports that more than a dozen lawyers who filed lawsuits against big tobacco initiated 25 cases against some of our nation’s largest and best known food companies in search of awards or settlements to rival the prizes earned from litigation against big tobacco firms. Many of the suits were filed within the past four months and claim food makers are misleading consumers and violating federal regulations by wrongly labeling products and ingredients, according to The New York Times. 

Don Barrett, who successfully sued tobacco companies and received hundreds of millions of dollars in record settlements, stated, “It’s a crime - and that makes it a crime to sell it,” referring to the alleged mislabeling of those products. “That means these products should be taken off the shelves.” The Mississippi lawyer and his group behind the litigation could seek damages amounting to billions of dollars; obviously collecting hundreds of millions of dollars for himself as well.

The mislabeling of products has been taken seriously by the courts, as the Federal Trade Commission recently won settlements from companies such as  DANNON and POM WONDERFUL for claims about the health benefits of their products. PepsiCo and  COCA-COLA are also facing “dozens of lawsuits” over “100% natural” claims on their orange juice products. Other lawyers are responding that the lawsuits are not merited and are driven by the attorneys’ avarice; “I think the courts are starting to look at the implausibility of some of these suits,” stated Kristen E. Polovoy, an industry lawyer at MONTGOMERY MCCRACKEN.

“It’s difficult to take some of these claims seriously, for instance, that a consumer was deceived into believing that a chocolate hazelnut spread for bread was healthy for children,” Ms. Polovoy charged, referring to a lawsuit brought against the maker of Nutella for allegedly promoting a healthy image behind the product.

In 2009, a federal judge in California dismissed a case against PepsiCo for claims that its Cap’n Crunch’s Crunch Berries cereal did not contain real berries, ruling “a reasonable consumer would not be deceived into believing that the product in the instant case contained a fruit that does not exist.” The plantiff’s lawyers in the recent lawsuits pointed to that case in an effort to support the legitimacy of their own claims, stating, “We researched regulations and labels for two years before filing our first case, and our cases don’t remotely resemble the Cap’n Crunch’s Crunch Berries case,” stated Pierce Gore, a lawyer affiliated with Mr. Barrett’s group.

Other plaintiffs’ lawyers are targeting food products with marketing that emphasizes “healthy” or “natural” claims, which unlike “organic” are not regulated by federal standards. The CENTER FOR SCIENCE IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST  has filed two lawsuits against General Mills and MCNEIL NUTRITIONALS  over their claims on Nature Valley and Splenda Essentials products. Mr. Barrett’s group also brought a case against Chobani for listing “evaporated cane juice,” as an ingredient in its Greek yogurt, a term the suit claims FDA repeatedly warned companies not to use because it is “false and misleading.”