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

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Jennifer Jacquet, an associate professor of environmental studies at New York University, said legal activism has become the single-most effective tool for holding companies accountable for questionable marketing claims. Professor Jacquet, an expert on seafood production, said the labeling rules for farmed salmon, for example, are so weak that companies do not have to disclose whether their fish are wild caught or raised with antibiotics in vast, tightly packed coastal enclosures that can have devastating effects on the surrounding ecosystems.

“Many of these sustainability claims are dubious and wildly overblown,” she said. “And given that labeling requirements are so pathetic, there really is little way for consumers to determine their truthfulness.”

The deceptive advertising claims against Cargill are typical of many recent cases. In a petition filed with the F.T.C., six advocacy groups took issue with the company’s prominent use of “independent family farmers” to describe the sourcing of the company’s turkey products. The phrase appears on the shrink-wrapped poultry marketed through its Shady Brook Farms and Honest Turkey brands, and cheery claims about the environment are a regular feature of the company’s advertising campaigns.

Critics say production practices, however, can be less than idyllic. “Far from the bucolic family farms portrayed by Cargill’s marketing, Cargill’s actual production methods exploit contract farmers and slaughterhouse workers, systematically abuse animals and cause grave harms to the environment,” the complaint said.

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

The F.T.C. said it does not comment on pending complaints.

From a regulatory standpoint, the meaning of “family farmer” is far from clear. The U.S.D.A. says the words can describe 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 the nation’s farms. But in 2018, the Small Business Administration said the contract farming arrangements that Cargill and other big poultry companies employ should be considered subsidiaries, not independent farming operations, when it comes to federal lending decisions.

Angela Huffman, a co-founder of the Family Farm Action Alliance, one of the complainants against Cargill, said contract farmers are often 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 that she contended could saddle farm operators with crushing debts. Because Cargill and a handful of other companies dominate the turkey market, many contract farmers have few alternatives. “They are under the thumb of Cargill, and then customers who see the red barn and green grass on the label are duped into thinking they are supporting family farms,” she said.