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Food labels make many claims.
But increasingly, the food companies behind the labels that make those claims are facing court challenges over them.
Food labeling lawsuits are nothing new; they've existed for years. But according to the New York Times, these claims are now "surging" because "advocacy groups" have been frustrated in their efforts to convince federal regulators to increase their oversight of the nation's food supply.
The demand for healthy food is increasing, and these plaintiffs are contending that some food producers are attempting to exploit that demand with misleading labels.
The website Food Manufacturing notes that the nature of the lawsuits is also changing. While earlier lawsuits challenged general claims that products were "all-natural," more recent lawsuits are more specific. The newer ones tend to focus on whether an ingredient or flavor is artificial, the origins of products, the absence or presence of ingredients on a label, or claims about "ancillary representations" like whether a product really is sustainably farmed or humanely raised.
One of the lawsuits that attracted attention earlier this year was a class action by two California women who alleged that the tuna fish subs sold by Subway restaurants don't contain actual tuna fish. That case was recently dismissed by a federal judge, but only on procedural grounds. The question about the authenticity of Subway's tuna remains unanswered.
Since the Subway lawsuit, filed in January, there have been many more taking aim at specific ingredients and other label claims.
Here's a review:
In June, a judge ruled that a lawsuit against Sargento Foods Inc. over its "No Antibiotics" label claim on cheese products could proceed.
But other lawsuits about labeling claims have recently been dismissed.
In July, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed a lawsuit alleging that Trader Joe's mislabeled its Manuka honey as being "100% New Zealand Manuka Honey." The plaintiff contended that the honey came from floral sources other than Manuka flower nectar, but the court ruled that the distinction was unlikely to mislead a "reasonable consumer."
The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York reached a similar conclusion in July, dismissing a lawsuit alleging that Mars vanilla ice-cream bars are not flavored only with vanilla beans and instead use ethyl vanillin to imitate vanilla. The court said the plaintiffs failed in showing that a "reasonable consumer" would think that vanilla ice cream is made exclusively from the vanilla plant.
Some of these lawsuits do sound a bit silly. But the people and organizations seeking greater accountability from Big Food believe they serve a purpose in drawing attention to companies that are allegedly "greenwashing" their brands through deceptive labeling. Maybe the lawsuits won't result in successful verdicts or settlements, but they do draw attention.
Meanwhile, the growing fight over food labeling has drawn the attention of Congress. A bill introduced last month in the House would overhaul food labeling through a system of symbols to reflect how healthy the products are. Lobbyists from the food industry are sure to fight it, however, and its chances for passage in the divided Congress are less than certain.
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