Barilla pasta claim of Italian origin is false advertising, lawsuit alleges

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Two $2 boxes of pasta have given rise to a potential class action lawsuit that could cost Barilla millions of dollars, according to legal experts.

A pair of pasta buyers, Matthew Sinatro and Jessica Prost, sued the company claiming they believed the pasta was made in Italy. The boxes are branded “Italy’s number 1 pasta brand” and logos displaying the colors of the Italian flag. But pasta is made in Iowa and New York.

Sinatro and Prost say they wouldn’t have bought the pasta if they knew it wasn’t made in Italy, which is valued not only for creating pasta but also for having the high-protein durum wheat needed to make a quality product.

US Magistrate Judge Donna Ryu ruled Monday that the case has sufficient merit to continue. “His allegations of hers are sufficient to establish economic damage for purposes of constitutional standing,” Ryu wrote.

Barilla is based in Illinois but started out as a store selling bread and pasta in Parma, Italy. Facilities in Iowa and New York use ingredients sourced 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 spokesman said Friday that the claims are unfounded, pointing to packaging wording that says the pasta is made in the United States with ingredients from the United States and elsewhere. “We are very proud of the brand’s Italian heritage, the company’s Italian know-how, and the quality of our pasta in the US and around the world,” according to the statement.

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Many modern consumers assume they are being misled or manipulated by corporations, according to some law professors who study misleading advertising.

Rebecca Tushnet, a professor at Harvard Law School, said people feel cheated when they pay a premium price for what they consider to be a special product, like chocolate from Switzerland.

He said consumers have been constantly filing false advertising lawsuits against companies that sell products in grocery stores because it’s one of the last forums in society that isn’t bogged down by legal forms or contracts where consumers give up their rights. claim rights. So, Tushnet said, this pent-up frustration at being manipulated by companies is expressed in their local Aisle 5.

Tushnet said he understands some people find these suits silly, because they hardly expect to buy something made 6,000 miles away for $2. “Some of this is a matter of common sense,” he said.

But how do you quantify common sense when millions of dollars are at stake?

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Tushnet said there has been an increase in the past five years of plaintiffs and defendants in false advertising cases conducting public polls that speak to the issues in the case.

Megan Bannigan, a partner at Debevoise and Plimpton who has handled intellectual property cases, said surveys have come a long way and are a useful tool in misleading advertising issues.

When Bannigan started 15 years ago, he said, they would set up inside a mall and try to get 400 people into a room to ask them questions like where they think a product is from and whether they would be surprised to discover the product. actual origin.

She said it has become much cheaper and more efficient to take surveys online, but they can still cost $20,000 to $100,000. But that is only a fraction of the cost in these types of cases, which can cost millions of dollars to resolve.

Bannigan said he could see one or both sides of the Barilla lawsuit by polling, because there appears to be a legitimate legal issue.

“I don’t see the claim as mere bragging,” he said.

Gregory Klass, a law professor at Georgetown University, said the history of false advertising law dates back to the 19th century.

“There’s a long tradition of people caring about where their food and other products come from, so it’s not surprising to see lawsuits like this,” he said.

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Klass pointed to the well-known example of the exclusive appellation rights associated with sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France.

As for pasta made in Iowa and New York, he said the real question is how important it is to consumers if the packaging is misleading.

Alexandra J. Roberts, a law professor at Northeastern University in Boston, said some consumers are agitated that fresh Florida orange juice now also uses Mexican oranges.

The citrus industry in Florida is known for its quality and consistency, so, he said, consumers are okay with paying more because the name on the box says it all.

The first item on Florida’s Natural’s FAQ page explains why it doesn’t use only Florida oranges: “The Florida orange crop can no longer keep up with our consumers’ demand, so we’re adding only the best orange juice Mexican Valencia. This allows us to continue to supply enough orange juice for consumers’ growing thirst while maintaining the superior taste they love from Florida’s Natural.”

While the product FAQ section of Barilla’s website doesn’t mention where the pasta is made, the spokesperson pointed to another section of the website that explains why not all pasta is made in Italy.

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