The Vermont Community Law Center Tuesday filed a class action lawsuit against Pinnacle Foods Group, a national food corporation, alleging that the company’s products are misleadingly packaged and labeled in violation of the Vermont Consumer Protection Act.
The case focuses on two products: Log Cabin syrup and Bird’s Eye Super Sweet Corn. Both are labeled as “All Natural,” but the Vermont Community Law Center and Law for Food, a group working with them on the case, say the ingredients aren’t natural at all.
“You have to do some significant research to find out where xanthan gum, for example, comes from, but it comes from corn powder. It’s highly processed and, by definition, synthetic,” said Kenneth Miller of Law for Food. The lawsuit says that xanthan gum, an ingredient in Log Cabin syrup, is recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a synthetic substance.
“By information and belief, [Pinnacle Foods Group's] products including the Birds Eye frozen corn products and Log Cabin syrup contain ingredients that are highly processed and derived from corn, rice or soy all of which are likely derived from genetically engineered … sources,” the lawsuit states.
At a press conference announcing the lawsuit, Jared Carter, managing attorney at the Vermont Consumer Litigation Center, and Miller presented an example of the Log Cabin syrup. Sometimes sold in “an opaque, tan plastic jug with a small round handle and a non-funtional ‘pour-spout’ lip,” Log Cabin syrup could present a confusing choice to consumers, who are accustomed to seeing genuine Vermont maple syrup in such jugs.
In response to a request for comment, Elizabeth Rowland, a Pinnacle Foods representative, said in an email, “Although we have heard about a pending lawsuit, we have yet to be served and have not received any information.”
Miller said the packaging and marketing of Pinnacle Foods Group’s products also hurts Vermont sugarers.
“Side by side, as it is with Vermont maple syrup, it’s much cheaper. So they’re undercutting Vermont producers, and in the end you can call it a lot of things, but we’re protecting consumers, but indirectly we’re also protecting producers and promoting a fair and honest economy,” he said.
Of the two samples the groups presented, they said the Log Cabin syrup, which came in a slightly larger container, cost $5.99 while the genuine Vermont maple syrup cost $12.50.
In 2010, after complaints from Rep. Peter Welch and the Vermont Department of Agriculture that Log Cabin syrup was not exactly “all natural,” Pinnacle removed caramel coloring as an ingredient in its syrup.
The lawsuit is not the only effort to fight misrepresented products. In Washington, Sen. Bernie Sanders recently announced an amendment to a Farm Bill that would allow states to require the labeling of genetically modified foods. The bill itself would not require such foods to be labeled nationwide.
In the Statehouse, a bill to require the labeling of genetically modified foods stalled in the House this year. State Sen. Phillip Baruth of Chittenden County said at the press conference for the lawsuit that it may have been hindered by threat of legal action from Monsanto.
“As somebody who sits on the Senate Agriculture committee, I waited eagerly this past session for a bill to come over from the House that would require labeling of genetically modified organisms within the state,” he said. “That bill never made it over to us, and I won’t speculate on the reasons why, but at a certain point in the session, Monsanto did issue a threat of a lawsuit and it seemed to me that the momentum for the bill outside the building picked up, and the momentum inside the building died from that point on.”
Baruth said he plans to introduce a labeling bill in the Senate in January and hopes that a pro-labeling Senate Agriculture committee will be able to send it to the House, who has already done a lot of work on the issue for quick passage, he said, before the final days of the session.