Tag Archives: lawsuits

Steven Blonder, Much Law
FST Soapbox

Food Litigation Trends Lay the Foundation for an Industry-Defining 2021

By Steven Blonder
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Steven Blonder, Much Law

The year 2020 brought with it continued court filings within the food safety litigation space, and it should come as no surprise the pandemic presented its own set of unique challenges. We’ve seen disruptions to the food and beverage supply chain, noteworthy changes with recalls, and continued developments in litigation specific to product labeling. These challenges have impacted everyone involved in the industry and laid the groundwork for what’s to come in 2021.

The most notable impact the food industry has faced as a result of the pandemic has been the massive disruption of the food supply chain. Grocers and other retail food providers have seen an immense spike in demand, whereas foodservice locations, such as restaurants, universities, and hotels, have seen the exact opposite. This disruption to the supply chain has required regulatory agencies to take notice and implement temporary policies to support these businesses and consumers alike. Employees across the food industry supply chain, including agriculture and food processing, have further been classified as essential, leading federal agencies to issue guidance to these employers to help them assess COVID-19 control plans and protect their employee’s health. Further, safety concerns and bumps in unemployment compensation have imposed additional strains on worker retention and attendance.

Another interesting facet of the pandemic’s impact on the industry has been its influence in the product recall space. Believe it or not, companies have strayed from pulling their products off the shelf even if it subjects them to potential liability. Why is this? Because as mentioned earlier, the demand for food in the retail space has increased so much, it has become a necessary choice to avoid food shortages across the United States. Don’t worry, if a product possesses a health or safety threat, companies are still recalling those to protect consumers and address safety concerns, but voluntary non-health or safety related recalls may have become a thing of the past. For example, rather than recall a box of cereal or other dry good for not meeting a fill-line requirement, providers may elect to risk a false-advertising lawsuit to meet the recent shift in retail food demand.

Since 2012, there have been more than 200 class action lawsuits filed related to the labeling on food products. This past year, we observed a continuation of this trend. Class action lawsuits were filed addressing the authenticity of “all-natural” products or claims based on the “origin” of a product, while we witnessed a sharp decline in slack-fill lawsuits. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the ingredients in food products and are continuing to demand transparency from companies to disclose how their products are made. There has been a particular increase in claims related to the definition of vanilla—is it pure? Is it natural? The same goes for citric acid, a product that can be made naturally or synthetically. There has been continued debate within the industry about citric acid in its use within other products where some citric acid is naturally occurring either from citrus fruit, tomatoes or other fruits with citric acid. If all-natural citric acid is added into tomato paste to help with the taste, can the tomato paste still be classified as being all-natural, even if the use of citric acid is displayed on the label?

To help combat the discrepancies around all-natural products, the USDA is currently working on developing an official definition of “all-natural,” which upon its completion is anticipated to have a major impact on the labeling industry and the number of false-advertising class actions. This definitional development comes at a crucial time especially as plant-based protein continues to rise in popularity.

The next wave of claims are being filed related to plant-based protein products. These claims include trademark and First Amendment issues. For example, when is a burger, a burger? Everyone assumes a burger means a hamburger, traditionally deriving from beef, and there has been an increase in debate around when the sale of plant-based products infringe on the rights of ranchers selling traditional beef products. Can food created in a petri-dish claim the same title as products created through traditional harvesting methods? What about other genetically modified products? These issues will likely spawn additional litigation in the coming year.

Looking ahead towards 2021, we can fully anticipate cases addressing food labeling issues to continue. Historically many of these claims were filed in Northern California with one federal court there earning the moniker of the “Food Court”. Recent years have seen increased filings in New York and Illinois, but the coming year may see a decrease in cases filed in New York as a result of recent court decisions relating to pre-emption and a recent opinion of a federal appellate court disallowing the settlement of class claims on an injunction-only basis. California may also see changes in their total cases as food producers curtail product sales in California to avoid the ambit of Prop 65.1

2021 will continue to bear witness to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The supply chain will continue to adjust to the varying demands of the public as they navigate safety regulations, and companies will maintain an “only-recall-if-absolutely-necessary” mindset. Many of the adjustments that businesses, consumers and regulators have had to make in light of the pandemic may also lead to long-term or permanent shifts. In fact, the Consumer Brands Association has identified a few select areas ready for change, such as the maintenance of flexibility in food labeling to ease the transfer process of products between foodservice and food retail providers. We just might find 2021 to be one of the most industry-defining years in the food safety litigation space.

Reference

  1. California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. (n.d.). Proposition 65. Accessed December 17, 2020. Retrieved from https://oehha.ca.gov/proposition-65
Michael Koeris, Ph.D. and vice president of operations, Sample6, pathogen detection
FST Soapbox

The True Costs You Endure During a Food Recall

By Michael Koeris, Ph.D.
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Michael Koeris, Ph.D. and vice president of operations, Sample6, pathogen detection

When you think about the expense of a recall, you probably automatically focus on the costs to pull the affected product from shelves and reimburse customers. Yes, this can be an expensive undertaking. But the true, comprehensive cost of a recall involves immensely more than these obvious financial tolls. Do you fully understand the price to be paid when your organization is up against a food recall?

The recall process in the food manufacturing industry is a highly expensive one, averaging more than $10 million in costs to cover activities such as communicating the recall across the supply chain, retrieving and handling the recalled product, investigating the event and implementing corrective actions to prevent reoccurrence.

Of course, this average doesn’t address the possibility of litigation costs, decreased sales, reputational damage or brand crisis management, which can add up to millions—even billions— of dollars more. The public has become much more informed and aware of food safety events, and a single breach of trust could result in resounding losses to your brand. This makes it critical to understand the true costs you endure when faced with a food recall.

Immediate, Direct Costs

A recall can be a company-defining event. The vast majority of recalls are voluntary and a reflection of conscientious behavior by the retailers, wholesalers and producers, but that doesn’t mean you won’t incur serious expenses. The most obvious, immediate and direct ones include:

  • Pausing production to carry out recall response initiatives
  • Alerting necessary parties within and outside the organization, including regulatory agencies and relevant retailers
  • Managing the logistics of removing affected or mislabeled products
  • Examining the source of the recall, including issues with suppliers, equipment, processes or contamination prevention plans
  • Remediating the identified problems to prevent similar occurrences
  • Planning for expanded human resources to handle recall tasks in addition to routine operations

Again, these expenses could equate to millions of dollars from your bottom line, but the truth is they may be the most minor of your concerns in the face of a food recall.

Compliance Penalties

As you likely know by now, there’s a monumental shift happening in the regulatory arena. FSMA has enacted strict laws that place a greater emphasis on proactive and preventive approaches to food safety. In addition, the USDA has been focusing on strong enforcement of its guidelines for years.

For manufacturers, this means adjusting processes and procedures to comply with legal requirements for monitoring, testing, documentation, risk assessment and more. It is not enough for companies to have a plan for taking corrective action on contaminated products; they must also have a strong preventive plan in place to identify pathogens in the production environment before they affect the product and/or leave the facility. If your company undergoes an FDA or USDA audit or investigation that reveals noncompliance with government-mandated prevention efforts, you could be looking at significant consequences like criminal fines and forfeitures to the U.S. government.

FSMA laws and USDA regulations stipulate that depending on the nature of the violation, and whether the food is adulterated or misbranded, the FDA or USDA may consider regulatory actions, including:

  • Issuing advisory letters
  • Initiating court actions, such as seizure or injunction
  • Implementing administrative detention to gain control of adulterated or misbranded products
  • Mandating a recall of violative food
  • Suspending a facility’s food registration to prevent the shipment of food

Lawsuits and Litigation

According to the CDC, 48 million people get sick from foodborne illness each year, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die. If your organization is sued on the basis of a contaminated or unsafe product, you can expect to deal with attorney fees, court costs and settlements. In the worst cases, you may even need to pay damages to harmed consumers.

Yes, prosecutions are rare. But they are a reflection of a failure to protect consumers, as well as potential negligence or (in the rarest of cases) malicious intent. The financial effects of these reputational scars go well beyond obvious litigation expenses.

Lost Sales

Once a recall is ordered, a series of actions unfold that drastically impact your income. Manufacturers halt production, and retailers pull products from their shelves. Worse, a loss in consumer trust can initiate a long-lasting sales depression. Your customers want to know that the products they’re buying are safe. In response to a recall, they may change their purchasing, food preparation and consumption practices, or they may avoid the product for months or years after the recall has ended.

Insurance Impacts

Most food companies have recall insurance to protect their assets if a recall occurs. But, are you fully informed on what it means to work through a recall with your underwriter or how a recall affects your premiums? Is there a possibility of losing your insurance? It’s crucial to understand how your insurance is affected by a recall and what is contractually covered under your plan.

Brand Deterioration

Recalls are happening more frequently today than ever before, for reasons including stricter compliance regulations and supercharged government testing regimes using novel technologies like next-generation sequencing. This increased focus on testing by the government has led to a greater discovery rate of contamination, which is a good thing for the public. It means that improvements will be made to yield an even safer food production environment.

Nonetheless, recalls are alarming to your customers, and the last thing you want to risk is their trust in your brand. At the end of the day, your brand is your primary asset. It is a representation of who you are and how you do business. When recalls happen, customers lose faith in your brand, which comes with a hefty price tag for your company. If your brand deteriorates due to consumer mistrust, you’re risking business failure.

Unfortunately for the food industry, stories exposing scandals are a proven way to catch the public’s eye. Therefore, any news of a recall receives immediate and aggressive media coverage from both traditional and social media platforms. In the event of a recall, publicity is inevitable, and it’s an expense that spans every aspect from public relations management to eroded sales.