Lawsuits over food labels escalate as groups cite lax US oversight; Buyers drawn to sustainable, cruelty-free meat and dairy products could be forgiven for thinking the country’s major food companies have turned away from industrial farming practices
Consider the packaging labels and marketing claims of some of the country’s best-known brands: Cargill turkeys come from “independent family farmers,” Sargento cheeses contain “no antibiotics” and Tyson uses “human production and environmentally friendly ”to raise chickens while providing workers with“ a safe working environment ”.
But some claims may not be what they appear to be, according to a flurry of litigation by advocacy groups seeking to combat what they describe as a wave of deceptive marketing by the food giants. The misleading labels, say the complainants, seek to take advantage of growing consumer interest in healthy diets, animal welfare and environmentally responsible agriculture, but without making significant changes to their farming practices and practices. production.
Class actions against food and beverage companies hit an all-time high last year, with 220 lawsuits filed in 2020, up from 45 a decade ago, according to a tally by law firm Perkins Coie .
The growing wave of legal activism partly reflects the frustration of advocates who have made little progress in recent years convincing federal regulators to increase their oversight of the nation’s food supply – or even provide definitions for words. as “healthy” or “all natural.” “Big Food, say supporters, eagerly exploited the regulatory vacuum.
According to lawsuits and complaints, Cargill turkeys are actually produced by contract farmers who have no say in how the birds are raised – and who often go into debt by complying with strict breeding requirements. by Cargill.
Tyson’s “all-natural” chickens, claims a lawsuit and a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission, are mass-produced in overcrowded sheds contaminated with antibiotic-resistant pathogens, and after slaughter they are bathed in. chemical disinfectants. The federal complaint also called into question Tyson’s “safe work environment” claims, noting that 39 workers at the Tyson processing plant died from COVID-19 and 12,500 others were infected, four times as many. case than its biggest competitors.
In a statement, Tyson said he complies with all labeling regulations and is transparent about environmental, animal welfare and workplace safety efforts.
Farmed versus wild salmon is another category with nebulous definitions that consumers find it difficult to analyze.
What about this Sargento cheese without antibiotics? One of two lawsuits recently filed against the company included lab tests that found traces of antibiotics. Sargento declined to comment, but in court records he said the amount of antibiotics the plaintiffs claimed to have detected was so minute that it “is the equivalent of less than half a teaspoon of antibiotics. ‘water in an Olympic-size swimming pool “.
The Organic Consumers Association, the Family Farm Action Alliance and the Animal Welfare Institute, among the nonprofits behind some of the litigation, claim that deceptive and over-the-top marketing is misleading consumers into believing that ” they support companies whose practices correspond to their values. But deceptive marketing, they argue, has a more pernicious effect: it ensures the continued abuse of millions of cows, pigs and chickens raised by Big Agriculture while harming the livelihoods of small farmers engaged in higher animal husbandry. human.
“We don’t think companies should be able to profit from misleading consumers about their practices,” said Jay Shooster, a lawyer whose firm Richman Law & Policy has filed several cases on behalf of advocacy groups. “While we can’t sue Tyson for mistreating their chickens, at least we can sue them for misleading the way their chickens are treated.”
The companies say the complaints are without merit, noting that a number of cases have been dismissed. Pooja S. Nair, a corporate food lawyer at Ervin Cohen & Jessup, said many of them were clearly frivolous, including some four dozen cut-and-paste lawsuits filed in the year. last against products flavored with vanilla.
The lawsuits, most of which were dismissed, claimed consumers had been misled into believing the aroma was from vanilla pods or vanilla extract. “The landscape for business has become increasingly hostile,” she said. “It forces companies to be more creative and careful in how they advertise their products. Other deceptive advertising cases were resolved before trial or by decision of the National Advertising Division of the Better Business Bureau.
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% natural whole grain oats”, bowing to complainants who said the snack bars contained traces of the protein. ‘glyphosate herbicide. And last month, NAD recommended that Butterball change or remove the phrase “farmers humanely raise our turkeys every day” from its labels.
Lawyers say much of the litigation could be avoided with tighter federal oversight. While they’ve been encouraged by the Biden administration’s efforts to respond to exaggerated food marketing claims through the FTC and the Food and Drug Administration, they say more systemic change is needed.
A bill introduced in Congress last month would revise front-of-package food labeling with a standardized system of symbols to indicate whether a product is truly healthy. The measure also directs federal regulators to specifically define terms such as “healthy” and it would require companies to clearly explain the amount of “whole grains” in a loaf of highly processed bread. The measure has the backing of nutritionists and healthy eating advocates, but opposition from industry lobbyists is likely to complicate its passage in a tightly divided Congress.