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Monday, December 6, 2021

Lawsuits Over ‘Misleading’ Food Labels Surge as Groups Cite Lax U.S. Oversight


Legal activism, according to Jennifer Jacquet, an associate professor of environmental studies at New York University, has become the single most effective tool for holding companies accountable for questionable marketing claims. According to Professor Jacquet, an expert on seafood production, labelling rules for farmed salmon, for example, are so lax that companies are not required to disclose whether their fish are wild caught or raised with antibiotics in vast, densely packed coastal enclosures that can have disastrous effects on the surrounding ecosystems.

“Many of these sustainability claims are dubious and vastly exaggerated,” she claims. “And, given the pathetic labelling requirements, there is really little way for consumers to determine their truthfulness.”

Cargill’s deceptive advertising claims are typical of many recent cases. Six advocacy groups filed a petition with the F.T.C., objecting to the company’s prominent use of the phrase “independent family farmers” to describe the sourcing of the company’s turkey products. The phrase appears on shrink-wrapped poultry sold under the Shady Brook Farms and Honest Turkey brands, and cheery environmental claims are a regular feature of the company’s advertising campaigns.

However, some critics claim that production practises are less than ideal. “Far from the bucolic family farms portrayed in Cargill’s marketing, Cargill’s actual production methods exploit contract farmers and slaughterhouse workers, systematically abuse animals, and cause grave environmental harm,” according to the complaint.

Cargill responded in a statement that the allegations were without merit, noting that the company’s marketing claims are vetted by the U.S.D.A. “Cargill operates in a legal, ethical, and responsible manner,” the company stated.

According to the F.T.C., it does not comment on pending complaints.

From a regulatory standpoint, the definition of “family farmer” is hazy. According to the USDA, the words can refer to any farm in which the operator or their relatives own at least half of the business — a category that includes more than 97 percent of all farms in the country. However, the Small Business Administration stated in 2018 that contract farming arrangements used by Cargill and other large poultry companies should be considered subsidiaries rather than independent farming operations when it comes to federal lending decisions.

Angela Huffman, a co-founder of the Family Farm Action Alliance, one of the Cargill complaintants, said contract farmers are frequently bound by mandates that dictate every step of production, from the breed of birds and feed they receive from Cargill to the type of equipment they must buy — requirements she claimed could saddle farm operators with crushing debts. Because Cargill and a few other companies control the turkey market, many contract farmers have few options. “They are under Cargill’s control, and customers who see the red barn and green grass on the label are duped into thinking they are supporting family farms,” she explained.

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