Plaintiffs allege product labels misled consumers on wholesome sourcing
Where Have I Heard This One Before?
Shake your head clear of the last 20-plus years. Whole foods isn’t a place; it’s a thing. Food that is unprocessed, unrefined and “natural” seems like a good working definition – and, therefore, an attractive brand name for a retailer.
A recent class action against FoodState, self-proclaimed provider of “the highest quality vitamin, mineral, and herbal supplements, presented to the body in a healthy and natural way,” is all about “whole foods” and how they’re marketed.
The original complaint, brought by three California residents in the District of New Hampshire, sued FoodState for labeling its copious catalog of supplement products as containing nutrients from whole foods (see here; the list is 40 pages long). “Although the FoodState Products contain some whole food ingredients,” the complaint reads, “the FoodState Products also contain vitamins, minerals and/or nutrients from other sources, which is not highlighted for consumers.”
You know the rest: Customers paid a premium for the perceived health benefits of whole foods, the complaint maintains, and they were taken for a ride when they picked up FoodState’s products.
The case also accused the company of marketing the products as made in the U.S.A., when in fact they were not.
The court granted preliminary approval of the class action settlement in May 2019 and claimants can now apply to receive up to $25 per product, for up to four products. The total settlement is $2.1 million, with class members who lack proof of purchase receiving a discount once the $2.1 million benchmark is reached.
The complaint raised an interesting distinction: In addition to allegedly not using whole food sources, the plaintiffs claimed that FoodState renamed stearic acid, a common saturated fatty acid, as “vegetable lubricant.” They argued that the common or usual name should have been used, even though the ingredient was a lubricant and not a binder or filler.
Actions like this are a demonstration of the marketing power of labeling; as benign as ingredients like stearic acid have proved to be, companies would rather risk a lawsuit than have scientific (and therefore “sinister”) ingredients included on their labels.
But isn’t clarity and specificity the best course if a class action can wipe out labeling-derived profit gains in an instant?