The Lawyers Are Coming for Your Food Biz Clients

What do the phrases “organic” and “all-natural” mean to you as a consumer? Does the fact that Sun Chips have that great “whole grain taste” make you more likely to eat them in the interest of your own health?

While the vast majority of consumers want to eat well, a recent survey conducted by iModerate Research Technologies confirms the fact that most don’t have enough information to make truly educated decisions regarding the food they buy—and that leaves them more vulnerable to dubious claims made by marketing teams and ad agencies.

In the eyes of the law, these questionable taglines might not mean much, and they may even qualify as “misleading.” But do they amount to bad PR practices or grounds for lawsuits? According to a recent story in The New York Times, a group of very successful litigators thinks they do—and they plan to raise a big stink about it.

These legal eagles have already filed a series of suits against some of America’s biggest food makers–marquee names like ConAgra Foods, PepsiCo, Heinz, General Mills and Chobani. The charge? Misleading customers about the health benefits and related properties of products like canned vegetables, cooking spray and hot chocolate mix.

Why should the food industry worry? Because the very same lawyers have already won multimillion dollar settlements with the nation’s largest tobacco companies–and they’re not afraid to be aggressive.

On the other hand, previous lawsuits that proceeded along the same lines look a little ridiculous in retrospect: Any customer who thinks that Nutella is a healthy choice for young kids or that Crunch Berries cereal contains actual fruit enters the court with a bit of a credibility problem.

These private litigators aren’t the only ones going after Big Food, though: the Center for Science in the Public Interest recently sued General Mills and other companies over claims made on the packaging and ad materials of products like Natural Valley snack bars and Welch’s jellies. We think it’s safe to say that “healthy” food makers have a PR problem.

PR people: Is public perception the issue here, or is this a case of straight-up dishonesty in marketing? Do the makers of certain blatantly unhealthy foods have a responsibility to avoid using ad-world doublespeak to convince customers that their products are more nutritious than they actually are? How would you advise the companies in question to respond?