- Deoleo, a Spain-based maker of olive oil products, recently announced two legal victories. One was a permanent injunction against false and misleading statements circulated on social media, and the other dismissed a mislabeling lawsuit.
- The permanent injunction was granted Nov. 15 by a Minnesota judge, who said statements published about Bertolli and Carapelli olive oils in Natural Solutions Magazine were false and misleading. The mislabeling lawsuit was decided Nov. 8 by the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. The judge in that case found plaintiff Kevin Fahey's claims that Bertolli Extra Virgin Olive Oil was mislabeled to lack sufficient factual content to determine Deoleo's liability.
- Both cases cited a 2010 study from the University of California-Davis, which Deleo said has "since been heavily refuted as false and misleading by olive oil councils and experts from around the world." That study found 69% of imported extra virgin olive oil samples bought off the shelf did not meet international standards required for that label.
Olive oil companies aren't likely to sit idly by while people and publications make charges they consider false and misleading without taking legal action. The brands have too much to lose when it comes to image and profits. At the same time, research can be taken out of context and repeated for years — which can hurt product sales and leave the industry trying to fight back without many tools except the courts.
Joseph R. Profaci, executive director of the North American Olive Oil Association, had said that the UC-Davis study left some consumers believing that fraudulent olive oil was the rule rather than the exception and tended to overshadow its health benefits.
"The idea that fake olive oil is pervasive, for instance, or that people can test whether their olive oil is authentic by putting it in the refrigerator, are examples of the false and misleading information that have become all too common," he wrote in a Food Dive opinion piece published earlier this year.
Deoleo is no stranger to legal challenges. The company's U.S. business settled a class-action lawsuit in May by agreeing to pay $7 million and change its packaging and testing protocols. A 2014 complaint claimed the company misrepresented its products by labeling them as "imported from Italy." Seven plaintiffs also questioned whether the olive oil could be extra virgin quality after being exposed to sunlight and heat and then further degrading while sitting on store shelves.
The settlement required Deoleo not to use the phase "imported from Italy" unless its products are only manufactured by using olives grown and pressed in Italy. The company also agreed to adopt stronger testing practices to make sure its products conform with extra virgin olive oil standards.
In 2017, Deoleo announced plans to spend about $25 million on relaunching and marketing its Bertolli and Carapelli brands in Italy and the U.S., where it gets 60% of its profits. The company had a 10.5% market share in 2017 and is considered the leading company in the sector, so it presumably has deep enough pockets to continue responding to legal challenges and assure consumers its products reflect labeling. These latest legal victories could also ward off other challenges or potential appeals as long as the company delivers as advertised.
"As the world's leading olive oil producer, we take matters of quality very seriously," Miguel De Jaime, Deoleo's global chief commercial officer, said in a release. "The misinformation and defamatory tactics in recent years have been deliberately used to confuse and distract consumers."
Food companies commonly face legal challenges. PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and Dr Pepper Snapple have been hit with charges of false advertising and deceptive business practices charges for having the word "diet" on artificially sweetened beverages. Nestlé has been accused of fraudulent spring water labeling, and General Mills was sued for labeling its Natural Valley granola bars as "100% natural" when consumer groups said they contained glyphosate.
Such cases often end up being dropped or settled before trial. Few parties benefit from a drawn-out legal challenge, which is costly and tends to harm a brand, even if the decision is eventually positive for the company involved.
Litigation based on label claims is becoming more common. According to a study by the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, there were more than 425 active cases in federal courts between 2015 and 2016, while there were only 19 cases in 2008. With consumers scrutinizing labels more than ever, food and beverage makers wanting to avoid legal challenges should make sure their claims are as truthful as possible.
Meanwhile, methods to counter product deception and adulteration include new traceability tools, auditing, consumer pressure and retailer practices designed to identify and limit fraud. While challenges are bound to occur, communication and cooperation among all players along the supply chain are likely needed to maintain consumer confidence.