Mislabeling lawsuits have only increased over the past few years — by 60% in 2012 alone — as accusations fly throughout the food industry as to what products say they are versus what is actually in the product. This could be over claims of being "all-natural" or "organic," having a certain proportion of healthy ingredients, or any number of other issues, major, nitpicky, or otherwise.
These lawsuits can cost food companies millions of dollars depending on the extent of the issue and number of products and consumers involved. Earlier this year, Diamond Foods settled a "natural" lawsuit by agreeing to compensate consumers who bought Kettle Brand products that contained a "natural" or similar label in the U.S. between Jan. 3, 2010 and Feb. 24, 2015. Considering Kettle sees millions of sales in any one year, reimbursing portions of five years of product sales could easily add up for the company.
With more consumers and lawyers on the pulse of food company transparency and proper labeling practices, food companies need to be prepared now more than ever before for such lawsuits. Here are five examples of products that did or could face lawsuits due to alleged mislabeling practices.
1. Similac Advance Organic Infant Formulas
Earlier this month, Abbott Laboratories came under fire when a lawsuit was filed by three consumers concerning whether the Similac Advance Organic Infant Formulas’ ingredients were indeed organic. The lawsuit stated that 26 of the 49 ingredients in the Similac organic formulas are not allowed in organic foods.
Abbott, the lawsuit alleges, was able to "command a premium price," using ingredients that were not wholly organic. If true, that tactic took market share from competitors, which further increased Abbott’s sales and profits. Abbott stands firm that its products are USDA certified as organic and in compliance.
2. Plum Organics baby food
In May, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) contacted Plum Organics, a unit of Campbell Soup Company, saying the organization would sue the company for mislabeling practices if Plum did not stop misrepresenting the ingredients contained in its baby food products. On Plum baby food pouch labels are claims of trendy, healthy ingredients like kale, quinoa, blackberry, and Greek yogurt. According to CSPI, the pouches actually have water or less nutritious ingredients like apple puree, which is high in sugar, listed as the first ingredients.
CSPI takes issue with Plum’s Kale, Apple & Greek Yogurt variety, kale puree is the fourth ingredient behind apple puree, water, and pasteurized yogurt, which means the yogurt does not contain healthful bacteria. As another example, in Plum’s Quinoa & Leeks with Chicken + Tarragon pouch, quinoa and chicken are the sixth and seventh ingredients, while leeks are the ninth.
3. Kind bars
Back in April, FDA didn’t take too kindly to Kind LLC’s labels for its Kind snack bars. While the products were labeled as "healthy," FDA called out four varieties of the snack bars due to their fat content, which exceeded the maximum 1 gram of saturated fat to bear the "healthy" moniker.
Kind stands behind the health benefits of its snack bars, attributing the saturated fat to fat found naturally in the nuts it uses in its products. Nuts, they say, contain beneficial fat and are "wholesome, nutritious and healthful," Kind's company spokesman Joe Cohen said in a statement. At this point, the FDA does not agree and believes the healthy label should be removed or the company risks a court order or the removal of its products from stores.
4. Glacéau Vitaminwater
Coca-Cola Co. saw attention in October over alleged deceptive labeling and marketing for its Glacéau Vitaminwater drinks. This resulted in a class action lawsuit that the company eventually settled. Coca-Cola marketed the drinks as being a healthy alternative to soda and included the phrase "nutrient-enhanced water beverage" on the label.
According to The Wall Street Journal, "Under a preliminary settlement, Coca-Cola has agreed to state the amount of calories per bottle on the front label as well as write in bold type, 'See nutrition facts for more detail,' on the label. The company has also agreed to stop making some statements about the drinks and their effects on the body."
5. Nature Valley granola bars (and other products)
Late last year, General Mills Inc. finally agreed to change the labels of its Nature Valley granola bars and other products by removing the word "natural" after four lawsuits were filed in 2012. Claims against the company were that the foods actually contained highly-processed, genetically modified ingredients, such as high fructose corn syrup, high maltose corn syrup, and maltodextrin.
Per the settlement agreement, General Mills tweaked that packaging to then read, "made with 100 percent natural oats" instead of "100 percent natural."
Mislabeling lawsuits in the food industry are becoming more common, costly, and time-consuming, particularly as consumers say they are looking for healthier choices and depend on food labels being transparent enough to help make the right choices. Food companies are having to be more careful than ever, and the situation is only intensifying with time for food companies large and small.