New Flavor of Labeling Lawsuits: Plaintiffs Allege False Vanilla Claims

July 31, 2019

Those who work in food labeling litigation are used to seeing vanilla complaints — that is, standard pleadings asserting the same allegations about label statements again and again. A new trend, however, has spawned several vanilla complaints of an entirely different sort.

As class actions recently filed in the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York illustrate, plaintiffs are increasingly alleging that labeling claims about natural vanilla flavoring are false or misleading. While the cases remain in their infancies, given this increased activity, manufacturers with vanilla-flavored products would be wise to review their labels and ingredient lists for any potential increased exposure.

The primary thrust of each of these complaints is that a label’s express vanilla claims or vignettes must be false because vanilla is not specifically declared in the product’s ingredient list. In Derchin v. Unilever United States, Inc., for instance, the plaintiffs point out that Breyers Ice Cream’s principal display panels include claims like “Natural Vanilla” or “Homemade Vanilla” and depict pictures of vanilla flowers or pods. But plaintiffs allege that vanilla is not listed in the product’s statement of ingredients; rather, the list simply states that the product contains “natural flavor.” Similarly, in Liou v. Nestle Dreyer’s Ice Cream Co., the plaintiffs allege that several flavors of the defendant’s Edy’s and Dreyer’s Ice Cream must not include real vanilla because they list “natural flavor” in their statements of ingredients, not vanilla specifically. And the plaintiffs in Garadi v. Mars Wrigley Confectionery US, LLC reason that if the company used real vanilla flavoring to make its ice cream bars, it would have specified as much in its ingredient lists.

The complaint in Sharpe v. A&W Concentrate Co. goes even further, relying upon not only the labels’ express claims but also the impression allegedly evoked by their other elements. As in the other cases, Sharpe alleges that the “made with aged vanilla” claims on A&W’s soft drink labels must be false. But he also appears to suggest that the labels might be misleading even without that express claim, creating what might be called a “vanilla halo” claim. In Sharpe’s view, the labels’ other elements — such as the barrel-stave background on which A&W’s root beer labels are printed — hearken to a bygone era of old-time soda jerks slinging hand-crafted beverages at the local five-and-dime. Through that historical background, Sharpe contends that root beer and cream soda both are “inextricably linked” to vanilla, leading consumers to expect the sodas actually contain that ingredient.

In some instances, plaintiffs also allege that manufacturers used other additives or ingredients to further their alleged deception. Liou, for instance, claims Nestle uses annatto coloring — which is disclosed in its statement of ingredients — to reinforce the allegedly false impression that its ice cream is made with real vanilla. Garadi raises a similar allegation about Mars’ use of beta carotene.

These vanilla claims show no sign of stopping. Just this month, plaintiffs in Charles v. Friendly’s Manufacturing & Retail, LLC targeted 51 separate vanilla ice cream products sold by the defendant as being deceptively labeled. Like its cousins, the suit targets the defendant’s labeling of the product as being vanilla ice cream despite the declaration of “natural flavor” in the ingredient list. Plaintiffs also allege that Friendly’s uses annatto and turmeric to mimic the color of ice cream flavored “exclusively by vanilla bean components.”

At first blush, manufacturers may find the suits perplexing, given that the labels at issue appear to comply with Food and Drug Administration regulations. Although ingredients usually must be identified by their specific names, 21 C.F.R. § 101.4(b)(1) provides that spices or flavoring “shall be declared according to the provisions of § 101.22.” And under 21 C.F.R. § 101.22(h)(1), any natural flavor added to a food may simply be declared as a “natural flavor” on the label’s statement of ingredients.

Those regulations may well have pre-empted any claim that the ingredient lists themselves were deceptive or misleading. But that is not quite what these lawsuits allege; indeed, Garadi and Liou both disclaim any argument that Mars or Nestle failed to comply with FDA regulations in their ingredient lists. Garadi also concedes that standardized vanilla ingredients “could be understood as complying with the requirements for ‘natural flavor.’” Nevertheless, the plaintiffs claim it would be “preferable” if statements of ingredients identified a specific source of vanilla flavoring.

The question instead appears to be whether a facially compliant ingredient list is sufficient to support a claim that some other statement or vignette is misleading, even when the list is not inherently contradictory. If courts accept this sort of argument, those in the industry may need to conduct a detailed review of how vanilla flavoring is declared and re-evaluate how vanilla products are marketed.

In the meantime, given this increased scrutiny, the industry should continue ensuring that any vanilla flavoring claims on their products’ labels are both truthful and fully compliant with applicable regulations.