- The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin issued an injunction against AB InBev to prevent the company from using labels claiming Bud Light has no corn syrup. The lawsuit was filed by MillerCoors in March, retaliating for the brewing giant singling the company out for its use of corn syrup in its brewing process in Bud Light's Super Bowl ad campaign.
- "In light of the limited number of beers in the light beer market, with Bud Light, Miller Lite and Coors Light accounting for almost 100% of sales, that same jury could also find a substantial segment of consumers would infer that Bud Light’s principal competitors contain corn syrup, especially after a hundred million dollar television and print campaign misleadingly suggesting the same thing," District Judge William Conley wrote in his opinion.
- "Bud Light is brewed with no corn syrup – plain and simple. We look forward to defending our right to inform beer drinkers of this fact at trial and on appeal," a spokesperson at AB InBev told Food Dive in an email. "MillerCoors is resisting consumer demands for transparency in the ingredients used to brew its beers, but those demands are here to stay. We will continue leading this movement in the beer industry."
This decision is the second blow to AB InBev after promoting the lack of corn syrup in Bud Light. An earlier ruling in this case banned the brewer from using specific language in any future commercials, print advertising or social media saying rival MillerCoors uses corn syrup in the production of its beers.
When AB InBev originally aired the Super Bowl ad highlighting there was no corn syrup used in its Bud Light product, the company was looking to emphasize the absence of the ingredient in its products. That could have been a smart marketing approach since consumers are looking for more transparency in foods and beverages.
There is a longstanding debate about whether corn syrup is healthy and triggered anger from corn growers. A proposed link between corn syrup and obesity has helped drive down its use in food and drinks the past few years.
However, the brewer specifically called out MillerCoors' beers in the process, starting this feud. Ironically, AB InBev also uses corn syrup in some of its other beverages, including Stella Artois Cidre and Busch Light, USA Today noted.
Although this ruling permits the company to sell products with "no corn syrup" labeling on the package if it existed as of June 6, customers could see the packaging change as a retraction of Bud Light's transparency. Consumers today seek transparency and reward companies for it. A recent report showed 75% of consumers say they'll switch to a brand that provides in-depth product information beyond what’s on the physical label.
AB InBev updated its Bud Light packaging this year to focus on the fact it uses only four ingredients. The "no corn syrup" label was another way to emphasize the use of natural ingredients in the beverage. With the label prohibited and Nielsen data showing Bud Light sales actually fell after the Super Bowl ad, Bud Light needs to find other ways to tell consumers to choose it over light beers from MillerCoors.
Meanwhile, this victory for MillerCoors is likely to draw some extra support from consumers who are looking to spend their money on companies they view as transparent. In response to the Bud Light ad, MillerCoors publicly acknowledged its Miller Lite and Coors Light beers use corn syrup to aid in fermentation, but the sweetener is consumed by yeast during the process, so it's not left in the final product sold to consumers.
This decision could set a precedent for labeling in the beer industry. The ruling clearly shows labels — coupled with advertising that could be construed as false or misleading — cannot be used to target rival companies. While AB InBev might have a valid point to make about not using corn syrup, the ruling shows advertisement — and common product placement — appear to have extended that label claim to a larger attack strategy.