Ex-tobacco lawyers lick their chops, eyeing the food industry

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Over a decade ago, major cigarette manufacturers were forced to take responsibility for their role in tobacco-related health care costs, in the form of the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement. The court case set right numerous cigarette marketing practices that were misleading and harmful. Yet the ruling was a mixed bag for public health: Some marketing restrictions and increased taxes contributed to a decline in smoking rates, but Big Tobacco was ultimately granted immunity from individual lawsuits. The multi-billion dollar settlement also put the plaintiff s attorneys in the spotlight, many of whom have effectively dined out on that winning case by filing suits against other businesses. Now they re taking on the food industry.

Over a dozen of these lawyers have already filed 25 cases against companies such as ConAgra Foods, PepsiCo, Heinz, General Mills, and Chobani. According to the lawsuits, these manufacturers are misleading consumers by mislabeling some of their products and ingredients which apparently also violate certain federal regulations.

For instance, some of these lawsuits have targeted products with labels stating that the foods are natural or healthy. But according to the lawyers, such claims are subjective and can easily be disputed by expert witnesses.

Don Barrett, a lawyer who earned millions after suing Big Tobacco, is going after Greek yogurt maker Chobani because it lists evaporated cane juice instead of sugar as one of the product ingredients. According to the FDA, food makers should not use the term because it s false and misleading.

But the food and beverage industry isn t sitting back quietly. Nick Briggs, a spokesperson for Chobani, describes the new legal attacks as frivolous. And while lawsuits brought against Big Tobacco did result in certain beneficial public health initiatives, the same cannot be said about the pending cases against food manufacturers. Although the lawyers claim to be looking out for the public s well-being, it is important to note that ulterior motives are largely at play: These cases are filed overwhelmingly in states like California, where consumer protection laws tend to favor plaintiffs. And because the lawyers are basing damages on product sales, favorable verdicts may lead to windfall settlements.

To equate cigarette companies, or their products, with the food industry is completely baseless; it s a typical lawyer's tactic, says ACSH s Dr. Gilbert Ross. The comparison is not valid in any shape, matter, or form, and it s disappointing to find that such frivolous suits are potentially placing consumer confidence in our food quality in jeopardy.

While ACSH s Dr. Ruth Kava agrees with Dr. Ross, she notes that the food industry has left itself open to these suits with its liberal use of purposely vague terms such as healthy and natural : they know these terms have no accepted definition.

ACSH s Dr. Josh Bloom has mixed feelings about the suits as well. On one hand, it would be somewhat satisfying to see the end of manipulative, dishonest marketing based on feelgood but meaningless techniques, such as the use of green boxes boasting terms like natural or transfat-free. But on the other hand, the thought that this same group of lawyers stands to make a killing for themselves with little or no benefit to the public makes me want to recycle my breakfast.