Food, Plaintiffs Firms, Tobacco / Smoking

The People v. Cap’n Crunch: Suing Big Food

So God made Adam and, when Adam didn’t want to sex any of the animals, he made Eve out of a riblet. They eventually got snookered by a snake and evicted from Eden. Yet before Eve and the snake and the eviction, Adam was blessed with the first kind of food labeling ever recorded. There was an oral tradition so, instead of writing his warning down, God simply shouted to Adam not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. There was no mention of monosodium glutamate or high fructose corn syrup. No list of ingredients or percentage of fat. There was a simple admonition not to eat from one specific tree, you dumb sonofabitch.

And so our obsession with food has continued unabated, to the point where we as a culture can be said to be consumed by it as much as we consume it. Yesterday, the New York Times published an article outlining how foodie culture has finally hit the big time: it has become the basis for a series of lawsuits by attorneys who previously made their names in the tobacco litigation that made millionaires of quite a few of them.

As a piece of straight reportage, it qualifies as mildly interesting. As a piece of absurdist comedy, it absolutely shines….

The Times article begins by mentioning the filthy lucre this cadre of tobacco attorneys made in their previous battles. Chief among them is Don Barrett, a Mississippi attorney who is said to have made “hundreds of millions of dollars a decade ago.” But he is still hungry.

Barrett and the others have now set their sights on the food industry and specifically those big players who stake out a sizable position in our food chain. Companies like General Mills, ConAgra, and PepsiCo stand accused of mislabeling their various offerings and making unsupported health claims about their yummies. The first product mentioned in the piece is Nutella, the Italian chocolate sauce that has become ubiquitous amongst that segment of the population that has studied abroad and won’t shut up about it. There is backlash against these suits, however:

“It’s difficult to take some of these claims seriously, for instance, that a consumer was deceived into believing that a chocolate hazelnut spread for bread was healthy for children,” said Kristen E. Polovoy, an industry lawyer at Montgomery McCracken, referring to a lawsuit that two mothers brought against the maker of Nutella. “I think the courts are starting to look at the implausibility of some of these suits.”

Yeah, who could possibly believe that a consumer was deceived?

While the makers of Nutella clearly tried to pull a greasy fast one on the American public, it can hardly be said that this is a surprise. Our breakfast table has metamorphosed into a showcase for various candies and sweets masquerading as nutrition.

Not that this is a bad thing. For instance, I love Cap’n Crunch. I love that seafaring scamp and would let him cut the top of my mouth any day of the week and twice on Sunday fundays. Never in a million years, however, would I think that his mistake in crafting a box filled entirely with delicious crunch berries was a step in the right nutritional direction. Oops, all stupid:

A federal judge in California in 2009 dismissed a case against PepsiCo, which accused the company of false advertising because Cap’n Crunch’s Crunch Berries cereal does not contain real berries. He ruled that “a reasonable consumer would not be deceived into believing that the product in the instant case contained a fruit that does not exist.”

Click on the image for enlightenment.

To be fair, I thought the same thing could be said about the boysenberry. But, as it turns out, the boysenberry is a real thing. I apologize to any International House of Pancake waiters I’ve offended with my loud and drunken accusations.

While nothing can top the crunch berry confusion for hilarity, the piece does include one more oddball claim. This one concerns Pam cooking spray. Some lady that should probably be kept from reporters for the good of the lawsuit explains her concern with the lubricant:

When she heard about a lawsuit involving the Pam cooking spray, she took a closer look. “There was nothing scary on it, just this innocuous word, ‘propellant,’ ” said [Christine] Sturges, a hairdresser from Los Gatos, Calif.

After digging deeper, she learned that “propellant” included petroleum gas, propane and butane. “I’d been spraying that on muffin tins to make muffins for my grandchildren — oh my God!”

I try not to reference The Princess Bride too often, but I do not think that “innocuous” word means what you think it means, Ms. Sturges. If we’ve become so complacent that the presence of propellants in our foodstuffs is considered innocuous, perhaps there is nothing left for our crusading plaintiffs attorneys to save. They’re merely rearranging deck chairs.

The rest of the article does include more robust claims, including the use of nonsensical claptrap like “all-natural” and “evaporated cane juice” (read: sugar) by food companies. It’s definitely worth a read beyond its unrivaled comedic brilliance. But in its discussion of claims and counterclaims about what we’re all putting in our bodies, it’s easy to believe our future may be dominated by the belief that not just our bodies, but our plants, crave something like Brawndo. It’s got electrolytes, after all. It’s what plants crave.

Lawyers From Suits Against Big Tobacco Target Food Makers [New York Times]

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