Food companies routinely make claims about the geographic origin of the food products they sell. Some notable examples include Florida oranges, Idaho potatoes, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, and Champagne. These origins are usually associated with a perceived level of quality, and, therefore, the products that carry their name are able to command a higher cost. But, what foods can and must use a geographic claim, and what are the risks when such claims are, in fact, used?
Mandatory Country of Origin Labeling
First, in the U.S., country-of-origin labeling is required on many imported foods and on most fresh and frozen produce. This labeling requires that companies declare what foreign country the food is from in a clear and explicit manner. In most cases, country-of-origin labeling is included on a product’s label purely due to regulatory requirements, rather than for marketing purposes.
With that said, however, any required country-of-origin claims must be truthful and not misleading, or the product could be subject to regulatory enforcement action. The Federal Trade Commission regulates the use of “made in the U.S.” and similar claims, and has strict requirements to ensure that any such claims made are truthful and not misleading.
Voluntary Geographic Labeling
Setting the required country-of-origin requirements aside, many foods labels are also laced with much more visible voluntary claims highlighting, with marketing prominence, the geographic origin of the food. In most cases, such claims do, in fact, accurately reflect the true geographic origin of the food.
In some cases, however, the claims may become untruthful, such as when companies change ownership or manufacturing facilities change locations. In other cases, the claims may have never had any truth at all, and were simply misappropriated by the food product manufacturers to intentionally enhance marketability and overall profit. These types of claims, where the claimed geographic origin of the product is misleading, are often the target of threatened or actual consumer class action lawsuits.
Because geographic claims are generally used to create a product that is perceived to have a higher quality, plaintiff class action lawyers have made a business out of challenging geographic claims made on product packaging or in product marketing. These claims, which in virtually all cases are styled as class actions, allege that the geographic claim was misleading and caused the consumers to spend more money on the product than they otherwise would in the absence of the geographic claim.
When such claims are asserted and lawsuits are filed, courts have treated the claims differently based upon how truthful or misleading the statements are, how the claims are actually communicated (i.e., through statements, vignettes, or other imagery), and whether there are any disclaimers or other conflicting (but truthful) geographical labeling.
In 2021, for example, a class action lawsuit against Unilever alleging the use of misleading claims was carefully assessed by the court and dismissed. The class action lawyers claimed that marketing on Maille mustard products was misleading because the labels referenced “Paris” and included words in French, which allegedly implied that the product was made in France. The court determined that, because the label did not otherwise represent it as a product of France, and because the product contained an accurate (required) country-of-origin label indicating that it was a product of Canada, the label was not misleading. The court concluded, in that case, based upon all of the labeling factors, that mere references to a geographic location on a label do not necessarily imply that the product is manufactured or produced in that geographic location. This was especially true given the Canada country-of-origin label.
In 2020, the whiskey brand Widow Jane was sued because the product’s label stated that the product was “Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey,” but was bottled with water from New York. After distillation in Kentucky, the alcohol was shipped to New York by the manufacturer and then bottled with New York water. In response to the consumer class action suit alleging that the reference to “Kentucky” on the labeling was misleading, the court granted a motion to dismiss, finding in that case that the claim was partially true, and that any misleading label claim was not material, in any event, to the purchasing habits of the consumer–plaintiff.