Barilla lawsuit reignites debate over 'slack-fill' packaging
- Italian pasta-maker Barilla has reportedly been underfilling its boxes of pasta by as much as 25%, by using a packaging practice known as "nonfunctional slack-fill," according to a lawsuit filed late last month in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.
- Barilla sells several different types of pasta in what appears to be the same-sized packaging, but the actual amount of pasta in each box may "deceptively" vary for each variety, according to the lawsuit.
- Barilla does print the exact weight of each variety on the packaging, but the lawsuit claims that information appears in small print at the bottom of the box.
As manufacturers pursue cost-cutting strategies, changing packaging and product sizes is one way to boost margins. But, considering several recent lawsuits, companies must handle such changes carefully and transparently.
"Barilla relies on consumers' familiarity with the box size and appearance, known due to decades of marketing, to mislead consumers into thinking they are purchasing the same quantity of pasta when, in reality, the company is filling the boxes with materially less pasta," the lawsuit said.
The products noted specifically in the lawsuit include on-trend pasta varieties like gluten-free, whole wheat, protein plus and white fiber. Because these pasta types often come at an increased cost, the lawsuit alleges that Barilla is deceiving consumers by putting less pasta in each box to preserve and/or increase its margins.
Other manufacturers have been hit with similar lawsuits over nonfunctional slack-fill. McCormick was sued by a competitior in 2015 and now faces a class action lawsuit because of claims it is underfilling its pepper containers by 25% without reducing the price or size of the packaging. A McCormick spokesperson told the Associated Press that the company did update the net weight on the packaging.
In May, a class action suit accused Mondelez of underfilling its Go-Paks snack products, and in February, a judge denied final approval of a $12 million settlement for consumers who accused Starkist of underfilling cans of tuna. The judge said the settlement terms unfairly limited potential antitrust claims against Starkist in the future.
Mini-cans have been a positive packaging change for soda companies. They let companies meet consumer demands for smaller serving sizes of an indulgent product, while being more profitable for the producers themselves.