In the complaint , filed on Friday at a district court in California on behalf of plaintiff Annie Lam, the CSPI alleges General Mills misled consumers by presenting Fruit Roll-ups, Fruit Gushers and Fruit by the Foot as healthful, when they contained “trans fat, large amounts of added sugars, and potentially harmful artificial food dyes; lack significant amounts of real, natural fruit; and have virtually no dietary fiber”.
The complaint alleges that “although the products were marketed as being healthful and nutritious for children and adults alike, selling these Fruit Snacks was little better than giving candy to children”.
However, General Mills defended its products in a statement to FoodNavigator-USA on Friday afternoon, adding: “We stand behind our products and we stand behind the accuracy of the labeling of those products.”
Specific claims might be accurate, but overall impression is misleading
While specific on-pack claims made by General Mills – that the snacks were a good source of vitamin C, low-calorie, low fat, fruit-flavored - might be accurate, the “core of the lawsuit is about Gen Mills deliberately deceiving parents by tricking them into believing that these junky, high-sugar foods are good snacks to feed their kids, which violated consumer protection laws”, CSPI litigation director Steve Gardner told FoodNavigator-USA.
“The fact that General Mills may have told the truth about certain ingredients does not serve as an excuse for its campaign of deception.”
While he acknowledged that the Fruit Roll-Ups Strawberry product did contain fruit-derived ingredients including pear from concentrate, fruit pectin and natural flavors [it is not possible to determine from the label if some of these are from strawberries], General Mills’ phrase ‘Made from Real Fruit’ on pack was nevertheless misleading, he argued.
Asked why the CSPI described legal artificial food colors in the snacks as “potentially harmful”, he added: “[They are] legal as far as the Food and Drug Administration is concerned, since they are approved food additives, but they are not necessarily legal under state consumer protection or food and drug laws. Federal approval of an additive is a floor, not a ceiling.
“And regardless what FDA does, or fails to do, many of these additives are now pretty generally accepted not to be safe, especially for kids.”
Is there a precedent for suits vs firms claiming products with trans fats are ‘healthy’?
While the level of trans fat from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils used in the products was very low, he acknowledged, “a food with trans fat, no matter how little, still contributes to excess trans fat on a cumulative basis.
“It's not as if a kid only eats one package of Roll-Ups in a lifetime. More importantly, though, these products don't just have trans fat. They have significant amounts of sugar, and not all sugar from whole fruits.”
He added: “At least one court has held that a claim for deception exists for the marketing of a food with trans fats.”
The complaint contends that the labeling of fruit-flavored snacks violates multiple state laws, including Minnesota’s Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act, and several California laws governing misleading and deceptive advertising and fraudulent business practices.
It adds: “The defendant’s misleading marketing, advertising, packaging, and labeling of its Fruit Snacks is likely to deceive reasonable California consumers.”
General Mills: We stand behind our products
Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA on Friday afternoon, a General Mills spokesperson said: “To our knowledge we have not been served with any lawsuit. But it would not be unusual for CSPI to put out a press release before actually serving a lawsuit.
“We cannot comment further at this point, because to our knowledge we have not been served. But we may well have a statement if we are. We stand behind our products – and we stand behind the accuracy of the labeling of those products.”