Lawsuits Over ‘Misleading’ Food Labels

 

A flurry of litigation by advocacy groups seeks to combat what they say is a rise in deceptive marketing by food giants.
 
 
according to a flurry of litigation by advocacy groups seeking to combat what they describe as a surge in deceptive marketing by food giants. The misleading labels, the plaintiffs say, seek to profit off consumers’ growing interest in clean eating, animal welfare and environmentally friendly agriculture — but without making meaningful changes to their farming and production practices.
 
The mounting wave of legal activism in part reflects the frustration of advocates who have made little headway in recent years convincing federal regulators to increase their oversight of the nation’s food supply — or even to provide definitions for words like “healthy” or “all natural.” 
 
The companies say the complaints are meritless, noting that a number of cases have been dismissed. Pooja S. Nair, a corporate food lawyer with the firm Ervin Cohen & Jessup, said many are patently frivolous, among them some four dozen cut-and-paste lawsuits filed last year against vanilla flavored products.
 
The lawsuits, most of which were dismissed, claimed consumers were misled into thinking the flavoring comes from vanilla beans or vanilla extract. “The landscape for businesses has become increasingly hostile,” she said. “It’s forcing companies to be more creative, and careful, in how they advertise their products.”
 
Last year, Ben & Jerry’s stopped describing the cows that provide the milk for their ice cream as “happy” after the company was sued by an advocacy group. In 2018, General Mills agreed to no longer promote its Nature Valley granola bars as “made with 100 percent natural whole grain oats,” bowing to plaintiffs who claimed the snack bars contained trace amounts of the herbicide glyphosate. And last month, the N.A.D. recommended that Butterball modify or drop the phrase “farmers humanely raise our turkeys every day” from its labels — although it said it was acceptable for the company to continue saying it has a “zero-tolerance policy against any form of animal mistreatment.”
 
Advocates say much of the litigation could be avoided through more stringent federal oversight. While they have been heartened by the Biden administration’s efforts to address exaggerated food marketing claims through the F.T.C. and the F.D.A., they say more systemic change is needed.