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Rick Shapiro
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Three Major Food Companies Face Class Actions Over Labeling

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We previously discussed the recent increase in food labeling class action suits and in this article we’ll walk through three of the highest profile actions that have food conglomerates across the country anxiously awaiting a final result.

The issue in many of these lawsuits is over food labels that appear to have been purposely designed to conceal important information about the product. One common problem is that companies misapply a “natural” label to products that contain suspiciously unnatural sounding ingredients. Attorneys say companies are eager to declare their products natural and healthy in an attempt to gain new consumers, but in their rush to do so many companies fudge the truth.

This leads to the first big food labeling case currently underway, a class action filed against Campbell’s Soup in Florida. The case arose after plaintiffs complained about labels on the company’s popular soups which refer to the ingredients as “natural” yet contain items like genetically modified corn. The suit argues that Campbell’s purposely mislabeled ingredients that it knew were genetically modified in an attempt to mislead consumers.

Campbell’s tried to have the suit thrown out of court, claiming that the FDA approval of the soup prevented the lawsuit from moving forward, however, a recent ruling out of a federal court judge rejected this argument. At the end of May, Judge Dimitrouleas found that there was no evidence the FDA, when it was reviewing the soups, even understood that GM corn was contained in the product given no mention on the label. As a result, the case was allowed to proceed.

Ben & Jerry’s was sued late last year by a plaintiff from New York who thought the “all natural” label applied to the company’s ice cream was inappropriate given the presence of hydrogenated oils and genetically modified ingredients. Ben & Jerry’s recently announced it would begin phasing out the use of genetically modified ingredients in its ice creams, perhaps in an attempt to better comply with the words on its own labels.

Finally, Trader Joe’s has been sued in California after plaintiffs complained about the company’s use of the term “evaporated cane juice” on products it claimed were not only natural, but also healthy and did not contain added sweeteners. The plaintiffs in the case say that even the FDA has come down against Trader Joe’s on this issue, with a guideline that clearly states industries should avoid listing ingredients such as “evaporated cane juice” because the term suggests that the ingredient is juice rather than the truth which is that it is merely sugar by a different name.

The movement to hold food companies accountable is important so that consumers can have faith that labels mean what they say. For too long companies have been allowed to slap meaningless labels on products without much opposition and the increase in lawsuits will hopefully put an end to that practice.

CA