• December 10, 2012

Update (December 10, 2012): Discussed below are a couple of consumer class action cases against General Mills. In the first case, Minnesota Litigator went out on a limb, pronounced the claim to be lame, but it nevertheless survived General Mills’ motion to dismiss.  The second time around, however, General Mills had better luck with regard to a plaintiff’s claim that General Mill’s so-called Greek Yogurt was neither Greek nor Yogurt.  U.S. District Court Judge Susan R. Nelson (D. Minn.) dismissed the case, finding that the FDA, rather than the U.S. District Court is in the best position to handle plaintiff’s claims.

Update (July 19, 2012):  After the jump is Minnesota Litigator’s earlier post about Twin Cities-based General Mills being taken to task for implying that there are strawberries in its “strawberry flavored fruit roll-ups.”  

More recently, this Minnesota consumer cereal/food/snack product behemoth is defending an attack on another battle-front, against the accusation that its “Greek Yogurt” is (1) not Greek, and (2) not yogurt.  Looks to me like another bogus complaint that should be dismissed (based on GM’s brief and also a layman’s sense that GM’s “Greek Yogurt” labeling is innocuous and nondeceptive).  But plaintiffs strongly disagree, of course.  And Minnesota Litigator predicted the last food-labeling challenge wrong so we’ll just have to see about this time…

Update (May 15, 2012):  From time to time, Minnesota Litigator makes predictions and then gloats when they pan out.  Some time ago, I more or less mocked plaintiff in a case against General Mills, going so far as to suggest that plaintiff may have had no belief in the merits of her own claim and speculating that she was bringing a loser of a lawsuit to shed light on an issue of social importance.   

For now at least (there’s always the chance to appeal, of course), I was apparently wrong.  General Mills was unable to get the case thrown out on a motion to dismiss, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California decided last week.

General Mills was sued in a class action because its fruit roll-ups promote themselves as “made with real fruit” and plaintiff argues that “strawberry flavored fruit roll ups” made from “pears from concentrate” (and other flavors and ingredients, of course) (but not strawberries).  

Original Post (October 17, 2011):  [Originally under the title: Public Interest Litigation, A Strange Bird Sometimes, General Mills Sued For Suggesting Fruit Roll-Ups Are Healthy]:  Most civil litigation is between two or more private individuals when a plaintiff goes to court to seek remedy for a perceived wrong.  It is almost always about money.

But we all know that our courts preside over other kinds of civil litigation (litigation brought by or against the government, for example) and public interest litigation (litigation brought in the name of an individual, but not really).  Public interest litigation can be a very different breed of litigation.

For example, the plaintiff in such cases normally has very little at stake in the litigation, if anything.  This, of course, can skew the normal incentives that affect litigants.  (“Why settle for anything?  Let’s fight this forever!”)  Conversely, a plaintiff might wish to plunge headlong into litigation she is assured of losing, using the courts not to seek redress for a wrong she has suffered but to bring attention to a social ill or social cause.

Take the recent class action lawsuit against General Mills (based in Golden Valley, MN) in the Northern District of California by a person, Annie Lam, represented by lawyers from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and lawyers from a small New York-based consumer rights firm, Reese Richman. Please.

Plaintiff alleges that statements as to the health-enhancing qualities of “Fruit by the Foot” and another similar General Mills product (Fruit Roll Ups) are all false because the product includes partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (a.k.a., “trans fat”), which, plaintiff says, “many doctors have compared to poison” (none of whom apparently on the record, for attribution).

General Mills’ statements that these snack products are “fruit flavored, naturally flavored, a good source of Vitamin C, low in calories, low fat, and gluten free,” are, according to the plaintiff, “misleading and deceptive” because the products contain trans fat.

One does not need to go to law school to figure out that there is a fat gap of reasoning there.  Plaintiff’s case is not promising.  On the other hand, plaintiff alleges that “Strawberry Fruit Roll Ups” contain no strawberries, which seems somewhat misleading.  (They’re probably never called “Strawberry Fruit Roll-ups” but, rather, Fruit Roll-Ups, strawberry flavored, or a similarly carefully thought-out formulation.)

Presumably the fact that her case might be a loser is of little concern to Annie Lam.  Plaintiff and her public interest counsel bring attention to a social issue worthy of attention: mass-marketed food-sellers’ claims about their products should be consumed with a grain of salt.

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