The Coca-Cola Company has misrepresented Vanilla Coke’s characterizing flavor as derived exclusively from vanilla, and not the beverage’s artificial flavors, a proposed class action claims.
The 15-page case out of New York notes that Vanilla Coke’s label denotes the soda as containing “vanilla and other natural flavors” in addition to the word “vanilla” displayed prominently. According to the lawsuit, however, consumers have been deceived and misled by Coca-Cola’s labeling of the product given they cannot be expected to know strict labeling regulations exist for products containing vanilla ingredients.
“The non-vanilla artificial flavors are not disclosed on the front label or the ingredient list, which is deceptive, misleading and in violation of the law,” the suit alleges, claiming neither the plaintiff nor proposed class members would have bought Vanilla Coke, or would have paid as much, had they known the soda’s packaging “is designed to—and does—deceive mislead, and defraud” buyers.
According to the suit, the difficulty faced by scientists in re-creating the complexity and richness of the flavor provided by vanilla beans is among the reasons why consumers are willing to pay more for products labeled solely with the descriptor “vanilla.” Citing a 2008 scientific study on vanilla flavor, the case says the first half of the 20th century saw the rampant adulteration of vanilla extracts, which led to consumers who were expecting to taste real vanilla flavor being given vanillin, a synthetic replacement, instead.
The lawsuit says that widespread fraud in vanilla products led vanilla to become the only flavor for which a standard of identity was established as a means to protect consumers. As such, the case explains, for a product for which vanilla is the only source of flavor, the ingredient is required to be labeled with a certain level of specificity, i.e. “vanilla extract,” “extract of vanilla” or “vanilla flavoring.” Similarly, non-standardized flavors in a product must be labeled as either “natural” or “artificial,” the suit adds, noting that such may consist of flavor combinations designated as “natural flavor.”
Per the suit, “natural flavors” may definitionally contain “both a characterizing flavor from the product whose flavor is simulated and other natural flavor which simulates, resembles or reinforces the characterizing flavor.”
Though Vanilla Coke’s ingredient list discloses “natural flavors” in reference to the flavor combination displayed on the soda’s label—“Coca-Cola Vanilla Flavored & Other Natural Flavors”—the complaint alleges it is misleading to label a product whose primary characterizing flavor is vanilla in such a way. Specifically, the lawsuit claims it is misleading to label the product as “Coca-Cola Vanilla Flavored & Other Natural Flavors” because the standards for vanilla “take precedence over the general flavor regulations where they may otherwise be in conflict.”
Food labeling regulations require that in an instance where a product is labeled as vanilla, the addition of non-vanilla flavors that “increase and promote a vanilla taste” must be declared as artificial flavors so as to not mislead consumers, the lawsuit says. Moreover, the label of a product flavored with a combination of synthetic vanillin and vanilla must also disclose that the product “contains vanillin, an artificial flavor (or flavoring),” per the complaint.
“Defendant’s branding and packaging of the Product is designed to – and does – deceive, mislead, and defraud plaintiff and consumers,” the lawsuit summarizes. “[The Coca-Cola Company] sold more of the Product and at higher prices than it would have in the absence of this misconduct, resulting in additional profits at the expense of consumers like plaintiff.”
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