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August 20th, 2012

Tobacco Trial Lawyers Look for Next Payday, Set Eyes on Food Industry

With the record Tobacco Settlement in the books, opportunistic plaintiffs’ attorneys are now looking for their next big payday, and it seems they have their target set on food manufacturers.  More than a dozen lawyers who took on the tobacco companies have filed 25 cases aginst industry players like ConAgra Foods, PepsiCo, Heinz, General Mills and Chobani.  The lawsuits, which have been filed over the course of the past four months, assert that food makers are misleading consumers and violating federal regulations by wrongly labeling products and ingredients.

While these types of lawsuits are not new, the tobacco lawyers are moving particularly agreesively.  For example, as first reported by The New York Times, these lawyers are asking a federal court in California to halt ConAgra’s sales of Pam cooking spray, Swiss Miss cocoa products and some Hunt’s canned tomatoes, calling it a crime to sell the products.  In addition to seeking the products’ removal from shelves, the group also is seeking damages amounting to four years of sales of mislabeled products- which could total many billions of dollars.  Such preposterous suits have included claims that a consumer was deceived into believing that a chocolate hazelnut spread for bread was healthy for children (Nutella) or a claim that PepsiCo was guilty of false advertising because Cap’n Crunch’s Crunch Berries cereal does not contain real berries.

A few courts have begun to look at the implausibility of some of these suits, but there are fears that this next wave of lawsuits could be much more potent.  The lawyers are specifically targeting food products marketed as “healthy” or “natural,” subjective claims that can easily be disputed by expert witneses.  The group also is being selective about where these suits are  filed.  Most have been filed in California, where not suprisingly Consumer Protection laws tend to favor plaintiffs.  One can only hope that California judges will see the ridiculousness in such claims, but knowing the State’s track record, the chances are slim.

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