Top 10 Food-Related Lawsuits of 2011

Taco Bell gives thanks for being sued over the contents of its meat

Taco BellTaco Bell gives thanks for being sued over the contents of its meat

A look at this year through the lens of the food-related lawsuits is like watching the first season of The Killing: an exercise in frustration, bewilderment, and, occasionally, excitement. From the mother who sued Nutella for allegedly misrepresenting its nutritional claims (frustrating) to restaurants suing bloggers for bad reviews (bewildering) to a multi-jurisdictional raid on a members-only food club (exciting), we highlight ten of the year's best (or worst, depending on how you look at it) lawsuits. And eagerly look forward to next year, when we may or may not see who killed Rosie Larsen and the resolution of at least some of these cases.

Culinary school graduates are suing their schools for a refund of their tuition

Screenshot of Le Cordon Bleu's tuition and feesCulinary school graduates are suing their schools for a refund of their tuition

10. Culinary School Graduates vs. Their Alma Maters. In May, the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco agreed to a $40 million settlement in a class action lawsuit filed by disaffected graduates who claimed that the school misrepresented their job prospects and the value of their degree. Le Cordon Bleu's network of schools, including the Pasadena location, is facing a similar suit from its former students. And in September, even the school's recruiters got in on the class action: almost two dozen recruiters sued the school for labor violations, alleging that they were not allowed to take breaks and encouraged to work off the clock. The recruiters also claim that the school directed them to meet enrollment quotas using any means possible, even if it meant "misleading students by promising rewarding high-paying jobs, careers, and celebrity status."

If only the students listened to Eric Greenspan: "That you pay law school prices for a fucking minimum wage job is retarded. Don't go to culinary school. Find a chef who's willing to hire you for minimum wage, and get your ass kicked. In two years you're going to learn more than you'd learn in school, and you can get paid for it."

One segment of the sugar industry is suing the other

AverageBetty/FlickrOne segment of the sugar industry is suing the other

9. Sugar vs. Sugar. In this battle over who gets to be branded the lesser of two evils, table sugar producers, including C & H Sugar Company, sued high fructose corn syrup producers for running ad campaigns that allegedly deceive consumers into believing that corn syrup is equivalent to table sugar. As Marion Nestle says, the lawsuit is clearly more about protecting the sugar industry's pocketbook than much anything else and is just one of too many examples of the politicization of our food system. Consumers would do well to watch their intakes of all sugars, period.

A lawsuit alleges that Vita Coco misrepresents its health claims.

T. NguyenA lawsuit alleges that Vita Coco misrepresents its health claims.

8. Coconut Water Drinkers vs. Vita Coco and O.N.E. Coconut Water. In August, a test revealed that coconut water brands Vita Coco and O.N.E. Coconut Water's health claims may not quite true: both products contained significantly less sodium and magnesium than were listed on their nutrition labels, and had far less hydrating electrolytes than they claimed to have. A class action lawsuit was promptly filed against the manufacturers for misrepresenting their health benefits, and currently is pending in the Los Angeles Superior Court.

A jar of Nutella

brianc/FlickrA jar of Nutella

7. "Shocked" Mother Who Doesn't Read Nutrition Labels vs. Nutella. In February, a San Diego mother was shocked - shocked! - to discover from her friends (and not, say, the food label) that Nutella is not nearly as healthy as she initially thought. Had the company's commercials and other advertisements not fooled her into believing that the spread was high in nutrition, she claims, she would not have fed her kid the hazelnut chocolate poison every morning. Those of us in favor of reading will be sorely disappointed to learn that the producer of Nutella, Ferrero USA, appears to have settled the case last month, after the federal court certified the lawsuit as a class action.

6. Benihana vs. Blogger Mark Makhou. Mark Makhou blogged about his disappointing experience at his local Benihana in Kuwait on his blog, TwoFortyEightAM. The chicken, he wrote, was "very chewy" and "tasted terrible." The rice and vegetables too "tasted bad AND were undercooked." In the grand scheme of bad reviews, this actually wasn't that bad (we've seen worse), and he barely complained about the questionable skills of the above cook preparing his food, but it still garnered an angry response, then a lawsuit, by the restaurant. According to an English translation of the suit, Makhou allegedly harmed Benihana by "insulting, doubting the quality and food served by Benihana and using expressions that disgust people from trying the food." The restaurant sought KD5001 - or about $18,000 - in compensation for those damages. In April, Makhou won the suit at the trial level, but lost on appeal and was ordered to pay Benihana KD1000 (about $3,600). Makhou plans to appeal the decision.

Chick-Fil-A in Valencia

R.E.~/FlickrChick-Fil-A in Valencia

5. Chick-Fil-A vs. Eat More Kale. To the list of reasons why you might not want to go to Chick-Fil-A, chicken sandwiches be damned (funding anti-gay groups and naming Asian customers "Ching" and "Chong" are at the top of the list), add Chick-Fil-A's recent lawsuit against Eat More Kale, a small t-shirt company in Vermont. Chick-Fil-A apparently owns the rights to the "Eat More" slogan, as in "Eat Mor Chikin" [sic]. When Eat More Kale applied for a federal trademark for its "Eat More Kale" logo, Chick-Fil-A blocked the application, ordered Eat More Kale to stop using its slogan, and to turn over its website to the chain. According to Chick-Fil-A, "Eat More Kale" dilutes its intellectual property and, revealing how dumb it must think we are, argues that customers would confuse a brand that encourages bad spelling and consumption of chickens with one that encourages proper spelling and consumption of a leafy vegetable. The case still is pending. Meanwhile, an online petition protesting Chick-Fil-A's actions already has gathered almost 25,000 signatures.

Sign at Rawesome during the August raid of its store

Amy ScattergoodSign at Rawesome during the August raid of its store

4. Local and Federal Authorities vs. Rawesome Foods. It was almost like an undercover drug sting, but with milk instead of meth, and urban hippies instead of urban druggists: in August, a multi-agency group representing every jurisdiction possible (the LA County Sheriff's Office, the Federal Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture, and the Centers for Disease Control) raided Venice's members-only food club Rawesome Foods, poured gallons of raw milk down the drain, and arrested owner James Stewart for allegedly selling unpasteurized goat milk, goat cheese, yogurt, and kefir without the proper permits. The store also is accused of selling raw milk to non-members of the food club. Healthy Family Farms, which provides the milk products to Rawesome, also was raided, and its owner, Sharon Palmer, was arrested on similar charges.

Taco Bell hit back after being sued over the contents of its beef

Screenshot of Taco Bell's websiteTaco Bell hit back after being sued over the contents of its beef

3. Amanda Obney vs. Taco Bell. In what forever will be known as the "Where's the beef?" lawsuit, Amanda Obney sued Taco Bell, claiming that the chain's "seasoned beef" actually is only 35% beef, with the remaining 65% comprised of binders and extenders. The suit didn't seek any monetary damages, only asking that the chain stop its allegedly false advertising.

Except maybe it wasn't so false: after a highly publicized campaign to prove that its meat is 88% beef (the remaining 12% is its "signature recipe," which includes water, spices, and oats), the lawsuit was voluntarily dropped. In the ultimate tit-for-tat, Taco Bell decided not to sue Obney for filing a frivolous lawsuit and instead ran full-page ads asking the plaintiff and the lawyers for an apology. As far as we know, no apology has been issued. And, whether it's 35% or 88% percent beef, you're still more likely to find a better beef taco at your local taqueria than at Taco Bell.

Listeria victims sued the farm that produced the contaminated cantaloupe

clayirving/FlickrListeria victims sued the farm that produced the contaminated cantaloupe

2. The Listeria Lawsuits. The deadly outbreak of Listeria earlier this fall - which led to the death of at least 23 people across the country - was linked to contaminated cantaloupes from a Colorado farm. That farm now is facing several lawsuits from victims of listeria, though as a Christian Science Monitor article notes, collecting damages from a small, family-run farm probably won't be easy. As a result, the plaintiffs also are suing Wal-Mart and other stores that sold the cantaloupes, with more defendants likely to be added as the lawyers parse the dense supply chain from farmer to grocer to determine where the breakdown in quality control occurred.

The Dervaes family claims it owns the trademark to the phrase "urban homestead"

Screenshot of The Dervaes Institute's Urban Homestead websiteThe Dervaes family claims it owns the trademark to the phrase "urban homestead"

1. Everyone vs. The Dervaes Family. "Urban" is a term of ordinary and common use; so is "homestead." Put them together, and what do you get? If the Dervaes family in Pasadena have their way, you would get a trademarked term, owned exclusively by them, that you can not use unless you like to receive threatening cease-and-desist letters from lawyers.

The family trademarked "urban homestead" last October and, earlier this year, began to zealously protect the term, sending letters to anyone who used the phrase in any capacity, including Evan Kleinman at KCRW's Good Food. Unsurprisingly, the flurry of threats was met with outrage. The Electronic Frontier Foundation jumped in quickly, and, on behalf of the authors and publisher of The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City, filed a petition to cancel the Dervaes's trademark on the grounds that the term "urban homestead" is generic and descriptive. The suit is still pending. In the meantime, the Dervaes have received the dubious distinction of landing in the EFF's Takedown Hall of Shame.