Company accused of falsely labeling microorganism levels in health teas
Probiotics are defined by the World Health Organization as “live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host.” When consumed, probiotics form “colonies” that take up residence alongside the other assorted flora and fauna present in the human body’s ecosystem. Although regulators around the globe have not reached a consensus on the issue, many people believe that consuming probiotics confers digestive and other health benefits.
Not surprisingly, probiotic products and supplements have become big business, with an estimated market value of $45 billion in 2017 – and projections of nearly $20 billion in growth by 2022.
One slice of that market, estimated at almost $2 billion, is owned by kombucha tea, one of the most popular probiotic delivery systems. Kombucha is essentially a green or black tea fermented with bacteria and yeast cultures; as hot water is added to the tea, the supposedly beneficial bacteria come to life, activating the health benefits of the brew.
As we mentioned before, not everyone is on board with the supposed health benefits of probiotics or, by extension, kombucha tea. And that’s why a recent class action filed against kombucha tea-maker Brew Dr. Kombucha in the Cook County, Illinois circuit court is interesting: It doesn’t accuse the manufacturer of advancing unsupported health claims. Instead, the plaintiff assumes the health benefits are real – but sues the company for misrepresenting the levels of probiotics in its product.
In 2014, the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics, an industry oversight group, published a consensus document claiming that probiotics confer health benefits at doses of over 1 billion colony-forming units (a measure that defines the number of probiotic microorganisms required to create a functioning colony). This definition might have been in the minds of the marketers over at Brew Dr. Kombucha when they designed the label for their “clear mind” tea product, which, according to the class action, boasts “billions of probiotic bacteria, beneficial yeasts and organic acids.”
The complaint attacks this claim on the basis of an independent laboratory test that purported to show that the product had only 50,000 CFUs per bottle, “twenty thousand times less than the ‘billions’ advertised by Defendant.”
Accuracy of ingredient labeling is as important as any other advertising claim and, if materially inaccurate, can support a claim of deceptive advertising.