The food industry is a multi-billion dollar business that affects the lives of every single person in the country. We need food to live, but how we eat and what we eat is becoming increasingly regulated. Along with the Food and Drug Administration and food manufacturers, the justice system – including the use of class action lawsuits – is part of an important string of checks and balances aimed at protecting consumers. Individuals need to know that they can trust what they’re eating, and that product labels accurately reflect what’s inside. And, in a world where we’re increasingly removed from the actual production of our food, trusting that it’s been produced in a safe environment often means trusting that regulations are being enforced.
Have harmful chemicals been used as pesticides? Has a company mislabeled something to hide how much fat or sugar it contains? Lawsuits help keep food manufacturers on their toes and create a better experience for all consumers.
Where’s It All From? “Organic” and “Natural” Food
“Greenwashing” – whereby companies attempt to appear more environmentally-friendly than they actually are – has become big business.
Everyone loves organic food, right? It’s healthier, fresher, and often produced locally – but did you know that everything marketed as “organic” has to meet strict requirements set by the USDA? Unlike “natural,” the term “organic” is regulated and protected to ensure that consumers know what they’re getting when they choose to buy organic products. Class action lawsuits have been filed against several companies for wrongly appropriating the term. “Greenwashing” – whereby companies attempt to appear more environmentally-friendly than they actually are – has become big business, with more and more companies being tempted by the fact that consumers will pay more for organic food. When companies step over the line and mislabel their products, class action lawsuits can be an effective way to hold these companies accountable.
It’s not just food manufacturers, either. In 2011, the Center for Environmental Health filed a lawsuit against several beauty companies over claims that their “organic” skincare products failed to satisfy USDA regulations. Milk, too, has been at the center of organic mislabeling lawsuits, as Wal-Mart, Target and Costco all faced a federal suit in 2010 over claims that their products were inaccurately marketed.
As for “natural” food, the fact the term isn’t federally regulated makes it far trickier to define. This also makes it far more susceptible to misuse by manufacturers. Companies that have faced lawsuits over their use of the term include Arm & Hammer, Cargill (Truvia), Frito-Lay, Blue Diamond, TRESemme, Arizona Iced Tea, Perdue, Trader Joe’s, 7UP, Dr. Pepper Snapple Group …
Well, you get the point.
It’s important that when you buy organic or natural food, you know what you’re getting – and vigilant consumers continue to shape the way we eat by making sure companies only advertise their products as organic when they have the evidence to prove it.
You Are What You Eat – Banned and Limited Ingredients
Sometimes things can go wrong in the production of our food, and unhealthy or even harmful substances can make their way into the things we buy. It’s not just a case of what goes in, either. The amount of sugar, for example, or the amount of certain chemicals in our food is strictly regulated. Both the FDA and the USDA have rules on what can and can’t appear in our food; however, there have been plenty of cases where companies have been sued for exposing consumers to harmful and illegal levels of certain ingredients. One of the most recent cases involved PepsiCo and Goya Foods, Inc., which were accused of trying to hide dangerously high levels of 4-mel, a caramel coloring, in certain drinks. 4-mel is a carcinogen that’s now under investigation by the FDA, and a class action lawsuit filed by consumers claimed that the companies failed to warn them just how much of the chemical made it into their drinks. Among the accusations were claims brought under California’s Unfair Completion Act, False Advertising Law, and Consumer Remedies Act. It’s a good reminder that even though regulations are in place, sometimes things can go wrong.
The More You Know – Labels and Misleading Claims
Accurate labels are at the heart of the consumer-manufacturer relationship, and it’s a good sign that, earlier this year, the FDA announced plans to change food labels to better inform consumers about what they’re putting in their bodies. Under the proposals, a greater emphasis on calories and added sugars will, hopefully, help individuals make healthier choices. As the FDA explains:
“A lot has changed in the American diet since the Nutrition Facts label was introduced in 1993 to provide important nutritional information on food packages.
People are eating larger serving sizes. Rates of obesity, heart disease and stroke remain high. More is known about the relationship between nutrients and the risk of chronic diseases.
So the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposes bringing this familiar rectangular box—which has become one of the most recognized graphics in the world—up to date with changes to its design and content.”
Even so, labels still sometimes fail to reflect the products’ true nature, and companies need to be held accountable for this failure. Once more, class action lawsuits have proven an effective way to do so. Take, for example, the argument over whether “evaporated cane juice” is an acceptable way to describe sugar. Doesn’t it confuse consumers, and lead some individuals to purchase items believing they’re sugar-free? Following several lawsuits, the FDA has announced it is reexamining the issue. It’s not just unhealthy foods that can be hidden on labels, though. In some cases, the health benefits of a product might be exaggerated. Fish oil supplements, for example, are currently under investigation by attorneys over claims that some manufacturers are mislabeling the dietary supplements, wrongly representing the products’ ingredients and their impact on the users’ health.
It’s lawsuits like these that have helped shape our food industry, promoting clarity, accuracy and accountability. It’s a safe bet that there’ll be plenty more lawsuits filed this year over food products’ labeling, ingredients, and health benefits, but every suit, and every decision by a manufacturer to improve their products, is a step in the right direction.
If you liked this post, be sure check out last week's article, 'Class Action Lawsuits That Changed the Internet.'