Have you been a victim of “food fraud”? The complaint for this class action alleges that this offense is growing, and it alleges that Danone North America, LLC is guilty of it in presenting some of its Dannon and Oikos yogurt products as being vanilla flavor.
The Nationwide Class for this action is all consumers in all states who bought any products with actionable representations during the statutes of limitations. Similar state classes are suggested for Connecticut, New York, Illinois, North Carolina, Ohio, Massachusetts, Vermont, and California.
The complaint specifically pictures containers of Dannon Whole Milk Yogurt, Dannon Low-Fat Yogurt, and Oikos Triple Zero, all presented as what the complaint calls “vanilla-based” yogurts. The labels for each claims the flavor is “vanilla” and then, in smaller letters, adds “with other natural flavors” which the complaint abbreviates to “Vanilla WONF.”
Among yogurt flavors, vanilla is the third most popular, according to a survey by a flavor company. The problem? Vanilla is the world’s second most expensive flavor, after saffron.
According to the complaint, this tempts companies to commit food fraud. The complaint cites two common methods of this: the “(1) replacement of valuable ingredients—botanically derived natural vanillin—with less expensive substitutes like synthetically produced vanillin and (2) addition of ‘small amounts of a non-authentic substance to mask inferior quality ingredient[s]” such as when color additives are used to make a lower-quality food look better.
What’s wrong with the “Vanilla WONF” designation?
The complaint points out that the “characterizing flavor” is vanilla. Since there is no other flavor designation, the other natural flavors must simulate, resemble, or reinforce the characterizing flavor of vanilla. The complaint claims that the most likely ingredient for doing this with vanilla is vanillin, which it claims is a synthetic flavor although it can be called natural if it is made through a natural process like fermentation.
If that is so, the complaint says, Vanilla WONF is “the equivalent of the standardized vanilla-vanillin combination ingredients (that is, vanilla with vanillin extract, flavoring, or powder). But in their standardized forms, the proportions are fixed by law and must be identified in a certain manner, to let consumers know what they’re getting and to identify the vanillin as an artificial flavoring.
The complaint thus claims that using the Vanilla WONF designation is in effect doing an “end-run” around consumer protection laws. Using this kind of designation, the complaint says, will lead to a “race to the bottom” where companies try to use as little real vanilla as possible and then substituting synthetic or chemical variations, some of which are harmful.
The complaint flatly concludes, “It is misleading to use (synthetic) vanillin in a vanilla product to boost the vanilla flavor, without clearly designating that the vanillin is derived from sources that are not vanilla.