Smucker - which makes Crisco oils and fats, Jif peanut butter and Folgers coffee - has been targeted by three trans-fat-related class action lawsuits in the past two years: Henderson v. The J.M. Smucker Company (filed June 2010); Perez v. The J.M. Smucker Company and Keil’s Food Stores (filed April 2012); and Vinson & Caldera v The J.M. Smucker Company (filed June 2012).
Smucker: Wasteful, expensive and time consuming litigation
The Vinson & Caldera suit claims Smucker has violated multiple state laws by falsely representing selected Crisco shortenings as healthier than butter and its Uncrustables sandwiches as wholesome when they contain trans-fats from partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.
However, Smucker argues that it is in “complete compliance” with federal labeling legislation, which requires the trans-fat content in both products to be disclosed as ‘0g’ because they contain less than 0.5g trans-fat per serving.
The latest suit is “aimed at shaking Smucker down for token class relief and massive attorneys’ fees for their efforts”, it added.
“By muddling consumer protection laws with products liability theories, plaintiffs, through their counsel, are forcing food manufacturers to undergo wasteful, expensive and time consuming litigation that cannot and will not benefit the consuming public to which it is addressed.”
Plaintiff: In comparing Crisco’s sat fat content to butter, a duty arises to warn consumers that it also contains trans-fat
In their second amended complaint, filed on September 19, Vinson & Caldera acknowledge that the Nutrition Facts panel of both Smucker products “appears to be in compliance with FDA regulations concerning the disclosure of trans-fat”.
However, they argue that claims such as ‘50% Less Saturated Fat Than Butter’, and ‘Use Instead Of Butter Or Margarine For Baking’ “misleadingly imply that Crisco is a more healthful alternative to butter”.
In fact, allege the plaintiffs, “Crisco contains dangerous levels of artificial trans-fat, which is far more harmful to health than saturated fat, whereas butter contains no artificial trans-fat.”
They add: “In comparing Crisco’s saturated fat content to butter, a duty arises in Smucker to inform and/or warn consumers that Crisco contains trans-fat.”
Can a product that contains trans-fat also be ‘wholesome’?
They also object to Smucker’s description of Uncrustables as ‘wholesome’ because they contain trans-fat and high fructose corn syrup, which they describe as a “highly refined manufactured food additive linked to tooth decay, childhood obesity, type-2 diabetes, and heart disease”.
In suggesting Uncrustables are wholesome, they claim, “a duty arises in Smucker to inform and/or warn consumers that Crisco contains trans-fat”.
Smucker: Federal law requires that we label trans-fat as 0g
However, Smucker insists it is in “complete compliance” with federal labeling regulations, which “explicitly allow” allow it to compare the saturated fat levels in its products to butter and require it to list the trans-fat content of both products as 0g.
“Plaintiffs here bring claims seeking to require Smucker to alter its product labels in ways that conflict with specific federal laws and regulations regulating such product labels.”
Smucker: This is the third in what currently is a trilogy of trans-fat lawsuits
In a similar false advertising brought by POM Wonderful against Coca-Cola, the ninth circuit court concluded that federal law took precedence, noted Smucker.
“Plaintiffs’ attempt to undercut these regulations and require materially different or additional disclosures represents precisely the sort of claim that the Court in POM Wonderful prohibited.”