Two $ 2 boxes of pasta led to a possible class action that, according to legal experts, could cost Barilla millions of dollars. A couple of pasta buyers, Matthew Sinatro and Jessica Prost, sued the company saying they were convinced that its pasta was produced in Italy. The boxes bear the slogan «The pasta brand n. 1 in Italy »and logos in the colors of the Italian flag. But the pasta is made in the states of Iowa and New York.
Sinatro and Prost argue that they would not have bought it if they had known that it was not produced in Italy, an origin appreciated not only for the creation of pasta but also for the availability of durum wheat with a high protein content necessary for the creation of a quality product. .
Federal judge Donna Ryu ruled on Monday that there are grounds for advancing the case: “The accusations are sufficient to establish the constitutional sustainability of an economic damage.”
Barilla has its US headquarters in Illinois but was born as a bread and pasta retailer in Parma, Italy. Facilities in Iowa and New York would use ingredients from countries other than Italy, according to court documents. The California law firm that filed the lawsuit did not immediately respond to requests for comment from the Washington Post.
A Barilla spokesperson on Friday claimed the allegations were unfounded, noting that the wording on the package claims the pasta is made in the United States with ingredients sourced from the United States and elsewhere. “We are very proud of the Italian heritage of the brand, the Italian know-how of the company and the quality of our pasta in the United States and around the world”.
According to some law professors who are experts in misleading advertising, many contemporary consumers believe they are being misled or manipulated by companies. According to Rebecca Tushnet, a professor at Harvard Law School, the consumer who pays a premium for what he considers a special product, such as Swiss chocolate, is fundamentally deceived.
Misleading advertising lawsuits against companies selling food products are increasingly common, says Tushnet, because this is one of the few areas of society that has not yet been trapped in legal clauses or contracts in which consumers give up their right to prosecute. So, according to Tushnet, any pent-up frustration with corporate manipulation ends up being poured into a supermarket aisle.
Tushnet says it’s understandable that some people find these complaints ridiculous: you can hardly expect to buy a thing that was produced 6,000 miles away for $ 2. “Part of it is a matter of common sense,” he says.
But how do you measure common sense when there are millions of dollars at stake?
According to Tushnet, over the past five years or so there has been an increase in the number of plaintiffs and defendants commissioning surveys of misleading advertising cases to test the common perception of advertisements.
Megan Bannigan, a partner at the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton, which has defended intellectual property lawsuits, says polls have become a useful tool in misleading advertising cases. When he started running them fifteen years ago, Bannigan says, his studio was setting up in a shopping mall hoping to be able to lure 400 people into a room to ask them questions about what they imagined where a certain product came from and what their reaction would be. upon learning of a different place of origin.
It has now become much cheaper and more effective, he explains, to conduct online surveys, which can still cost between $ 20,000 and $ 100,000. And this is only a fraction of the total expenditure, which in similar cases can run into millions of dollars. Bannigan thinks it plausible that one or both sides of the Barilla case are conducting polls to support what appears to be a legitimate legal issue: “It doesn’t seem like a hoax.”
Gregory Klass, a law professor at Georgetown University, argues that the history of misleading advertising law begins in the 19th century: “There is a long tradition of people who care where their food comes from, as well as other products. Causes like this are not surprising ». Klass recalls the well-known example of the exclusive naming rights associated with sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France.
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As for the pasta produced in Iowa and New York, according to Klass, it must first be established how important consumers believe that the packaging can be misleading or not. Alexandra J. Roberts, a law professor at Northeastern University in Boston, says some consumers of Florida’s Natural orange juice have been agitated that the company now also uses Mexican oranges.
The Florida-based agricultural cooperative is prized for its quality and authenticity, and consumers, says Roberts, agree to pay more for what the name says on the package: Florida’s Natural.
The first entry on Florida’s Natural FAQ page explains why the company doesn’t exclusively use Florida oranges: “The Florida orange crop can no longer meet the demand of our consumers, so we’re adding only the best orange juice. Mexican Valencia. This allows us to continue to satisfy the growing thirst of consumers, while maintaining the taste they love so much in our juices ».
Although in the FAQ section of the Barilla website there is no mention of the place where the pasta is produced, the company spokesperson pointed to another page on the site that explains why the pasta is not all made in Italy.
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(translation by Sara Reggiani)