Attorneys for the Sugar Association and the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) went head to head at federal judge Consuelo Marshall's courtroom in Los Angeles at noon today as the dispute over the CRA’s right to describe high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as ‘corn sugar’ moved into a new phase.
The dispute began in 2010 when the CRA petitioned the FDA to revise the generally recognized as safe (GRAS) affirmation for HFCS to recognize ‘com sugar’ as an alternate name on the grounds that many consumers believe – erroneously – that HFCS contains significantly more fructose and calories than table sugar.
It then followed up with a high-profile media campaign promoting ‘corn sugar’.
However, the move was strongly opposed by sugar refiners and farmers who filed a lawsuit against leading corn refiners last year accusing them of deceiving the public. They also argue that the CRA should have waited until the FDA responded to its petition before going ahead with its campaign.
Today’s hearing: Who are the defendants?
The hearing today focused on the issue of who the defendants are in the case: the CRA or its individual member companies.
Last October, the court granted a defense motion to dismiss all claims against individual CRA member companies – including ADM, Cargill, Corn Products International, Penford Products, Roquette America, and Tate & Lyle Ingredients Americas – leaving the CRA as the only defendant.
However, attorneys for the Sugar Association and sugar farmers filed a motion challenging this decision last month, arguing that CRA members were “attempting to evade liability for their roles in the creation and sponsorship of false advertising by the CRA”.
In response, CRA president Audrae Erickson called the move “a rehash of the same groundless claims that a federal judge rejected last year”.
A polarizing issue
Comments responding to the CRA petition in a public docket reveal how polarized opinion on this issue has become, with critics claiming CRA is trying to deceive consumers and supporters claiming an alternate name would in fact boost consumer understanding by tackling misconceptions.
One supporter, New York –based dietician Jessica Fishman Levinson, wrote: “People think HFCS is higher in calories and fructose and is sweeter than table sugar… In reality, HFCS and sucrose have the same number of calories, nearly the same amount of fructose, and the same level of sweetness.
“It is time for a change to the name so that consumers can see that … HFCS is actually just sugar made from corn.”
However, Marion Nestle, professor in the department of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, wrote: “The [CRA] website quotes comments I have made to the effect that HFCS is biochemically equivalent to sucrose. It is. But I do not believe biochemical equivalence is a good reason for the FDA to agree to a name change...
“The name change is not in the public interest. Its only purpose is to further the commercial interests of members of the Corn Refiners, and that is not one the FDA should be concerned about.”
The CRA was quick to respond: “Dr Nestle asserts that the only purpose for the requested optional name is to further the commercial interests of the CRA members… CRA members have the same interests as the broader food industry and consumers in promoting clear and accurate food labeling and in assuring that all ingredient producers are permitted to on a level playing field.”
What happens next?
Commenting after today's hearing, the CRA's Erickson, said the court "was obviously well prepared and asked excellent questions of both sides,” adding: “We look forward to the Court’s ruling.”
“The processed sugar industry has also brought claims against the CRA, and those claims will proceed to the discovery phase. We will vigorously defend those claims, which we believe are completely without merit."