Lawsuits Over ‘Misleading’ Food Labels Surge as Groups Cite Lax U.S. Oversight

Shoppers drawn to sustainable, humanely raised meat and dairy merchandise may very well be forgiven for considering the nation’s huge meals firms have turned away from the economic farming practices which have lengthy dominated American agriculture.

Consider the package deal labels and advertising and marketing claims for a few of the nation’s finest identified manufacturers: Cargill turkeys are sourced from “independent family farmers,” Sargento cheeses comprise “no antibiotics” and Tyson makes use of “humane and environmentally responsible production” to lift its chickens whereas offering staff “a safe work environment.”

But some claims might not be what they appear, in keeping with a flurry of litigation by advocacy teams searching for to fight what they describe as a surge in misleading advertising and marketing by meals giants. The deceptive labels, the plaintiffs say, search to revenue off customers’ rising curiosity in clear consuming, animal welfare and environmentally pleasant agriculture — however with out making significant adjustments to their farming and manufacturing practices.

Class-action litigation in opposition to meals and beverage firms hit a report excessive final 12 months, with 220 lawsuits filed in 2020, up from 45 a decade in the past, in keeping with a tally by the legislation agency Perkins Coie.

The mounting wave of authorized activism partly displays the frustration of advocates who’ve made little headway lately convincing federal regulators to extend their oversight of the nation’s meals provide — and even to supply definitions for phrases like “healthy” or “all natural.” Big Food, advocates say, has eagerly exploited the regulatory vacuum.

A current lawsuit and grievance filed with the Federal Trade Commission questions Tyson’s “all pure” claims on its chickens, as properly as its “protected work setting” claims.Credit…Kaiti Sullivan for The New York Times

According to the lawsuits and complaints, Cargill turkeys are literally produced by contract farmers who haven’t any say in the best way the birds are raised — and who typically change into mired in debt complying with Cargill’s strict husbandry necessities. Tyson’s “all natural” chickens, claims a lawsuit and a grievance filed with the Federal Trade Commission, are mass-produced in crowded sheds contaminated with antibiotic-resistant pathogens, and after slaughter, they’re bathed in chemical disinfectants. The federal grievance additionally questioned Tyson’s “safe work environment” claims, noting that 39 Tyson processing plant staff have died of Covid-19 and 12,500 others had change into contaminated, 4 instances extra circumstances than its greatest rivals.

In a press release, Tyson stated it complied with all labeling rules, and was clear about environmental, animal welfare and office security efforts.

Farmed versus wild salmon is one other class with nebulous definitions that customers discover exhausting to parse.

And that antibiotic-free Sargento cheese? One of the 2 lately filed lawsuits in opposition to the corporate included lab assessments that discovered hint quantities of antibiotics. Sargento declined to remark, however in court docket filings, it stated the quantity of antibiotics the plaintiffs claimed to have detected are so minute that it “represents the equivalent of less than half a teaspoon of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.”

The Organic Consumers Association, the Family Farm Action Alliance and the Animal Welfare Institute, among the many nonprofit organizations behind a few of the litigation, say that deceptive and exaggerated advertising and marketing dupes customers into believing they’re supporting firms whose practices align with their values. But misleading advertising and marketing, they contend, has a extra pernicious impact: It ensures the continued mistreatment of hundreds of thousands of cows, pigs and chickens raised by Big Agriculture whereas harming the livelihoods of small farmers dedicated to extra humane animal husbandry.

“We don’t believe that companies should be able to profit from deceiving consumers about their practices,” stated Jay Shooster, a lawyer whose agency, Richman Law & Policy, has filed a number of circumstances on behalf of advocacy teams. “Even if we can’t sue Tyson for abusing their chickens, at least we can sue them for misleading about how their chickens are treated.”

The firms say the complaints are meritless, noting that numerous circumstances have been dismissed. Pooja S. Nair, a company meals lawyer with the agency Ervin Cohen & Jessup, stated many are obviously frivolous, amongst them some 4 dozen cut-and-paste lawsuits filed final 12 months in opposition to vanilla flavored merchandise.

The lawsuits, most of which had been dismissed, claimed customers had been misled into considering the flavoring comes from vanilla beans or vanilla extract “The landscape for businesses has become increasingly hostile,” she stated. “It’s forcing companies to be more creative, and careful, in how they advertise their products.”

The authorized struggle over package deal labels represents a brand new entrance within the effort by environmental and animal welfare teams to extend company transparency and to prod giant meals firms to embrace much less dangerous practices. The litigation additionally seeks to harness customers’ rising curiosity in sustainability by naming and shaming firms they accuse of “greenwashing” their manufacturers.

“My family tries to eat as sustainably as possible, and we don’t mind paying a premium for products that are advertised as such, but it really raises my hackles when companies are dishonest about what they are selling,” stated Dezzi Rae Marshall, a profession counselor from Los Angeles who’s the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed in June in California in opposition to Red Lobster. The lawsuit contends that a lot of the corporate’s shrimp and lobster are sourced from suppliers using fishing practices that aren’t environmentally sustainable.

Red Lobster declined to touch upon the litigation, however stated it’s dedicated to sustainability “to ensure there’s seafood to enjoy, now and for generations.”

Although lots of the lately filed lawsuits are nonetheless winding their manner by way of federal and state courts, the plaintiffs have been inspired by a handful of favorable rulings. Other misleading promoting circumstances have been settled earlier than trial or by way of adjudication by the National Advertising Division of the Better Business Bureau.

Last 12 months, Ben & Jerry’s stopped describing the cows that present the milk for his or her ice cream as “happy” after the corporate was sued by an advocacy group. In 2018, General Mills agreed to not promote its Nature Valley granola bars as “made with 100 percent natural whole grain oats,” bowing to plaintiffs who claimed the snack bars contained hint quantities of the herbicide glyphosate. And final month, the N.A.D. advisable that Butterball modify or drop the phrase “farmers humanely raise our turkeys every day” from its labels — though it stated it was acceptable for the corporate to proceed saying it has a “zero-tolerance policy against any form of animal mistreatment.”

Advocates say a lot of the litigation may very well be averted by way of extra stringent federal oversight. While they’ve been heartened by the Biden administration’s efforts to handle exaggerated meals advertising and marketing claims by way of the F.T.C. and the F.D.A., they are saying extra systemic change is required.

A invoice launched in Congress final month would overhaul front-of-package meals labeling by way of a standardized system of symbols to convey whether or not a product is actually wholesome. The measure additionally directs federal regulators to particularly outline phrases like “healthy,” and it could require firms to obviously clarify how a lot “whole grain” is in a loaf of extremely processed bread. The measure has the backing of nutritionists and wholesome meals advocates, however opposition from business lobbyists is more likely to complicate its passage in a narrowly divided Congress.

For now, advocates are attempting to prod federal regulators by way of authorized activism and public stress. The Animal Welfare Institute, as an illustration, has been attempting to attract consideration to the U.S.D.A.’s position in approving the label descriptions for meat and egg merchandise, which it does by reviewing paperwork submitted by firms searching for its approval. Inspectors with the Food Safety and Inspection Service, the U.S.D.A. company charged with verifying labeling claims, solely have jurisdiction over slaughterhouses and meat processing vegetation, not the farms the place the animals are raised.

Credit…Kaiti Sullivan for The New York Times

Since 2013, the institute has requested documentation from the F.S.I.S. for practically 100 package deal label claims. In greater than half of those circumstances, the company has been unable to seek out any documentation to again up its choices, in keeping with a report. In its evaluate of the recordsdata offered, the institute discovered that 28 p.c of label claims lacked enough substantiation.

The F.S.I.S. disputed the group’s findings, citing flaws within the institute’s requests submitted beneath the Freedom of Information Act.

Food advertising and marketing might be notoriously fuzzy. Without clear-cut definitions for phrases like “sustainable,” “humane” or “natural,” meals firms have been utilizing claims they know will resonate with Americans involved with the setting, animal welfare and employee security.

But firms which were focused by litigants say advocates and plaintiffs are typically searching for to forge definitions for phrases that no affordable client would acknowledge.

Ivan Wasserman, a meals lawyer in Washington D.C., stated a few of the calls for can border on extortion. For each case that makes its method to court docket, he stated dozens of others are quietly settled with financial compensation — typically with out making adjustments to the contested label. Even circumstances that find yourself in court docket can pressure credulity, he stated, citing lawsuits claiming Kellogg’s Froot Loops and Quaker Oats’ Cap’n Crunch’s Crunchberries cereals deceived customers into believing they contained precise fruit.

The lawsuits had been dismissed.

“These cases can really have a chilling effect on speech,” Mr. Wasserman stated. “And I think that’s damaging not only to the company, but also potentially for consumers, if companies are afraid of giving truthful and accurate information for a fear of being roped into a meritless lawsuit.”

Still, he acknowledged that a few of the current litigation was not completely outlandish, and stated he had change into more and more emphatic in advising shoppers to keep away from phrases like “natural” or “sustainable” on their labels. The flood of litigation has change into so intense that Mr. Wasserman’s agency, Amin Talati Wasserman, lately opened an workplace in California, which has a few of the nation’s most stringent client safety rules.

Jennifer Jacquet, an affiliate professor of environmental research at New York University, stated authorized activism has change into the single-most efficient software for holding firms accountable for questionable advertising and marketing claims. Professor Jacquet, an skilled on seafood manufacturing, stated the labeling guidelines for farmed salmon, for instance, are so weak that firms shouldn’t have to reveal whether or not their fish are wild caught or raised with antibiotics in huge, tightly packed coastal enclosures that may have devastating results on the encompassing ecosystems.

“Many of these sustainability claims are dubious and wildly overblown,” she stated. “And given that labeling requirements are so pathetic, there really is little way for consumers to determine their truthfulness.”

The misleading promoting claims in opposition to Cargill are typical of many current circumstances. In a petition filed with the F.T.C., six advocacy teams took problem with the corporate’s outstanding use of “independent family farmers” to explain the sourcing of the corporate’s turkey merchandise. The phrase seems on the shrink-wrapped poultry marketed by way of its Shady Brook Farms and Honest Turkey manufacturers, and cheery claims concerning the setting are a daily characteristic of the corporate's promoting campaigns.

Critics say manufacturing practices, nonetheless, might be lower than idyllic. “Far from the bucolic family farms portrayed by Cargill’s marketing, Cargill’s actual production methods exploit contract farmers and slaughterhouse workers, systematically abuse animals and cause grave harms to the environment,” the grievance stated.

In a press release, Cargill stated the allegations had been with out advantage, noting that the corporate’s advertising and marketing claims are vetted by the U.S.D.A. “Cargill conducts business in a legal, ethical and responsible manner,” it stated.

The F.T.C. stated it doesn’t touch upon pending complaints.

From a regulatory standpoint, the which means of “family farmer” is way from clear. The U.S.D.A. says the phrases can describe any farm through which the operator, or their family, personal no less than half of the enterprise — a class that features greater than 97 p.c of the nation’s farms. But in 2018, the Small Business Administration stated the contract farming preparations that Cargill and different huge poultry firms make use of ought to be thought-about subsidiaries, not unbiased farming operations, in the case of federal lending choices.

Angela Huffman, a co-founder of the Family Farm Action Alliance, one of many complainants in opposition to Cargill, stated contract farmers are sometimes certain by mandates that dictate each step of manufacturing, from the breed of birds and feed they obtain from Cargill to the kind of gear they have to purchase — necessities that she contended might saddle farm operators with crushing money owed. Because Cargill and a handful of different firms dominate the turkey market, many contract farmers have few options. “They are under the thumb of Cargill, and then customers who see the red barn and green grass on the label are duped into thinking they are supporting family farms,” she stated.

Greg Gunthorp at his farm in Indiana.Credit…Kaiti Sullivan for The New York Times

For the nation’s dwindling band of unbiased poultry growers, the advertising and marketing methods of company behemoths can have real-life implications. Greg Gunthorp, a fourth-generation farmer in northeast Indiana, prides himself on elevating his turkeys in ways in which resonate with customers targeted on sustainability. The birds spend a lot of their lives on pasture, the place they will peck at grass and bugs, and the Gunthorp household processes the turkeys themselves, with out using disinfectants like chlorine.

But final Thanksgiving, one in every of Mr. Gunthorp’s longtime retail shoppers stated they might not purchase his turkeys. Shoppers, the retailer informed him, had been more and more drawn to cheaper, brand-name turkeys making related sustainability claims.

“Big Ag has co-opted and bastardized every one of our messages,” he stated. “When they use a fancy label with absolutely meaningless adjectives, there’s just no way we can compete.”