A California court denied Arizona Canning Company’s motion to dismiss an action challenging the depiction of its canned beans, moving forward a false advertising suit brought by a pair of consumers in the state.
William Beckman and Linda Gandara claimed they were misled by the portrayal of a bowl full of plump, juicy beans pictured on the label of Sun Vista Beans products. The picture depicted a prominent red bowl of cooked pinto beans, surrounded by a few green leaves, white onions cut in halves or quarters, portions of a sliced tomato and a couple of garlic cloves on a bed of dehydrated pinto beans. When the plaintiffs opened the cans, they were surprised to find “the repulsive sight of bean water.”
They also alleged the label was deceptive because it gave the impression that consumers would receive four ounces of beans per serving, but given the amount of water inside the can, they actually received less than two ounces. The plaintiffs included claims under the state’s Unfair Competition Law, False Advertising Law and Consumer Legal Remedies Act.
In its motion to dismiss, the defendant countered that the plaintiffs shouldn’t have relied on the picture and instead should have reviewed the list of ingredients, which stated that the primary ingredient in the product is water.
Recognizing “that images can reasonably be interpreted to have various meanings,” U.S. District Judge John A. Houston determined that the “general public is likely to interpret the image of cooked beans as either: (1) identifying the type of bean being sold or (2) depicting the can’s contents.”
The dehydrated beans in the background of the image and the placement of the bowl of hydrated beans in the forefront support the latter interpretation, the court found. Although the defendant described the image as “a picture of beans as they are suggested for serving,” that was contrary to the information offered within the nutrition fact panel.
“For this ‘suggestion’ to be accepted, consumers must drain more than half of the can’s contents—leaving the consumer with either a smaller serving size or significantly less servings than represented,” the court wrote.
As for the defendant’s argument that consumers should look to the ingredient list to determine the can’s contents, Judge Houston agreed this position held some merit.
However, “most shoppers digest the information on the back after seeing the pretty picture on the front,” he said. “Consumers often review the ingredients for health reasons, such as to avoid unhealthy additives or potentially deadly allergens. Less often do consumers analyze which ingredient is most predominant—especially if it appears obvious from the name of the product or the label’s display panel.”
A product label can still be misleading even if the alleged misrepresentation is corrected in the ingredient list and may trick or deceive consumers even if it complies with Food and Drug Administration regulations, the court noted.
“Construing the factual allegations in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, the Court finds Plaintiffs have sufficiently alleged that a significant portion of the consumer public, acting reasonably, could be misled, due to Defendant’s Sun Vista Pinto Bean label having the ‘capacity, likelihood or tendency to deceive or confuse the public,’” the court concluded.
To read the order in Beckman v. Arizona Canning Company, click here.
Why it matters: The court was not persuaded by the defendant’s argument that consumers should have looked beyond the picture on the can to read the ingredient list, emphasizing that a product label can still be misleading even if the product features an accurate ingredient list.