Is the beer better in Germany or Missouri?
The answer is up for debate, but one plaintiff filed suit against Anheuser-Busch claiming he was duped into believing that Beck’s beer was brewed in Germany when it was actually made in Missouri.
Francisco Rene Marty claimed he purchased Beck’s based on his understanding that Beck’s had long been an imported beer from Germany, brewed with German requirements, and featuring German ingredients. Since 2012, however, Beck’s has been brewed in St. Louis, Mo., with American ingredients, leaving Marty with an unpleasant taste in his mouth. He filed a putative class action alleging violations of consumer protection laws in California, Florida, and New York.
Although the company argued that a reasonable consumer could not have been misled given the “Product of USA” label on the beer, a federal court judge in Florida disagreed. The disclaimer was small, hard to read, was printed in metallic white on a metallic silver background, and worst of all, the court said, the words were blocked by the carton.
“A consumer would have to either open the cartons of twelve-pack bottles and twelve-pack cans or lift the bottle from the six-pack carton in order to see the ‘Product of USA’ disclaimer,” U.S. District Court Judge John J. O’Sullivan wrote. “A reasonable consumer is not required to open a carton or remove a product from its outer packaging in order to ascertain whether representations made on the face of the packaging are misleading.”
Approval of the beer’s label by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau did not entitle the defendant to safe harbor protections under the consumer protection statutes at issue, the court added. Because the labeling cannot be seen before the packages are purchased, the judge found the agency’s approval did not trigger the protections.
The court further noted that an additional statement on the label, “Brauerei Beck & Co., Beck’s Beer, St. Louis, Mo.,” may not be sufficiently descriptive to alert a reasonable consumer as to the location where Beck’s is brewed.
Beck’s argument that the statement “German Quality” was mere puffery also failed to persuade the court. Evaluating the phrase in conjunction with the other statements on Beck’s cartons, the company’s overall marketing campaign, and Beck’s German heritage with a 139-year history of being brewed in Germany, Judge O’Sullivan said a reasonable consumer could be misled to believe the beer is an imported beer brewed in Germany.
Ruling that the plaintiff has sufficiently pled that he suffered harm by paying a premium based on Beck’s misrepresentations, the court denied Anheuser-Busch’s motion to dismiss on the consumer protection statute and unjust enrichment claims.
However, the judge did toss Marty’s request for injunctive relief. He ruled that the complaint was devoid of any allegations that the plaintiff would purchase Beck’s in the future, thereby eliminating the potential for a real or immediate threat of future injury.
To read the order in Marty v. Anheuser-Busch Companies, click here.
Why it matters: The “Product of USA” disclaimer, Beck’s strongest argument against deceptively marketing the beer, was undermined by the fact that the statement was not visible to consumers prior to purchase. While the court agreed with the plaintiff that the font was small and difficult to read, it was the location of the statement that required consumers to open the packaging that tipped the scales in favor of the plaintiff.