Several top baby food manufacturers face a proposed class action lawsuit that alleges they conspired to conceal a “massive food fraud scheme” concerning the contamination of baby food with toxic heavy metals.
The 346-page complaint alleges defendants Plum Organics; Campbell Soup Company; Beech-Nut Nutrition Company; Gerber Products Company; Nurture, Inc.; and Safeway Inc. perpetrated a false advertising campaign centered on food safety and purity while they knew that their products were contaminated with high levels of toxic heavy metals.
When consumer watchdogs began to expose the alleged fraud, the manufacturer defendants, the lawsuit claims, began to release “intentionally misleading statements” and question the veracity of the reports. Further, the defendants went so far as to found the Baby Food Council, a supposedly independent research group that, in reality, was merely a “shell entity” used to “deflect attention away from their ongoing fraud,” the suit says.
The conspiracy case, which alleges violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), claims the defendants have failed to take responsibility for the harm caused to consumers and their children by the alleged presence of toxic chemicals in their baby food products, and instead sought to “lull consumers and regulators into inaction.” As the lawsuit tells it, the baby food makers ramped up the methods with which they aimed to hide the truth concerning the products’ apparent contamination once the federal government got involved.
“As these specific misrepresentations by each Defendant show, each was more interested in protecting profits than making meaningful changes to eliminate toxic heavy metal contamination,” the complaint alleges. “Once Congress illustrated Defendants’ continued manufacturing, testing, and distribution practices that led to contaminated baby food, Defendants engaged in a whole new round of fraud to conceal and prolong their schemes to defraud.”
The sprawling lawsuit in California federal court comes in the wake of a February 2021 Congressional report that preceded the filing of dozens of lawsuits over the alleged presence of toxic heavy metals in popular baby food products. The defendants’ actions and inaction have likely caused “irreparable harm to hundreds of thousands of families” across America, the suit alleges.
The case initially focuses on a February 2021 U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform report that the suit says “exposed rampant fraud, misrepresentations, half-truths, and fraud by omission committed by the nation’s seven leading baby food manufacturers in selling food to the most vulnerable in our population: infants and toddlers.” Per the lawsuit, the report detailed the results of an investigation that found high levels of toxic heavy metals in numerous baby food products manufactured and sold by Beech-Nut, Nurture, Gerber and non-defendant Hain Celestial, who all cooperated with the congressional investigation. Defendants Campbell and Plum, as well as Walmart and Sprout, reportedly “refused cooperation,” which the suit argues indicated that their misconduct was “even more nefarious” given it is reportedly “unusual” for companies to not cooperate with federal regulators.
The lawsuit largely echoes allegations detailed in dozens of other proposed class actions filed in the wake of the February 2021 report, including that the manufacturer defendants knew and failed to disclose that their baby food products contained levels of arsenic, mercury, lead and cadmium well in excess of levels allowed in bottled water; sometimes allowed products to exceed internal limits for heavy metals; or failed to test the finished products altogether.
More details of the alleged initial scheme whereby the defendants’ misrepresented the nature of their baby food products can be found over on our blog.
This lawsuit goes on to allege that after the defendants’ apparent fraud started to unravel, the baby food manufacturers, rather than recall the products or otherwise attempt to address the potentially dangerous contamination of their baby foods, attempted to “cover up their schemes” with misrepresentations, advertising and the creation of the Baby Food Council industry group.
Per the case, the manufacturer defendants responded to both an October 2017 Clean Label Project report that detected high levels of arsenic, lead and mercury in leading brands of baby food products and a 2018 Consumer Reports investigation that reported “worrisome levels” of arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury in 68 percent of 50 “nationally distributed baby and toddler foods” by downplaying the reports and reassuring parents and caregivers of their baby foods’ quality and safety. As Congress in late 2018 began to investigate the manufacturer defendants’ alleged wrongdoing, however, the companies, according to the suit, “turned to one of Big Tobacco’s proven tricks” and founded a “seemingly independent and pro-consumer entity” known as the Baby Food Council to convince the public that they were working to stop “the very fraud they were directing and perpetrating.”
The case alleges the Baby Food Council, a research group whose members include Cornell University, the baby food manufacturer defendants and several other organizations, was formed in January 2019 only after Congress began its investigation, and acted as a front “to mislead and deflect attention away from [the defendants’] ongoing fraud.” According to the lawsuit, the Baby Food Council has, since its formation, “taken no meaningful steps” toward solving the problem of heavy metals in baby food, and is effectively “a dormant entity” that has been notably silent following the publishing of watchdog reports and the February 2021 Congressional investigation.
“The Baby Food Council has done nothing other than serve as a shiny distraction,” the complaint scathes. “Despite being formed in January 2019, the Baby Food Council has done nothing substantive to address the lack of food standards or to regulate its members. The Council has not issued any demands for product recalls, nor has it assisted its members or the public with anything. It has sat dormant merely to deflect attention and serve as a false hope that [the manufacturer defendants] and non-Defendant, co-conspirator Hain are doing something, when in fact they are not.”
The lawsuit argues that the recent congressional report has demonstrated with the help of the defendants’ internal documents that despite having been aware for years of the toxic heavy metals in their products, the baby food manufacturers have “refused to cease their perilous practices” and “continue to put children at risk.”
The case looks to hold the defendants accountable for the alleged years of fraud and compensate consumers who have been harmed by their “nefarious” conduct:
“Defendants should be required to repay the consumers they lied to and stole from—and be subject whatever regulatory action and criminal indictments that follow in the wake of this case.”
The complaint can be found below.
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