More than a dozen lawyers who took on big tobacco in the 1990's have turned their attention to the food industry and the criminal mislabeling of food products. BBC Newsnight spoke with Don Barrett, one of the attorney's who's career capstone was the decade-long battle that forced tobacco companies to admit they knew cigarettes were addictive.
"Nobody's trying to tell the American people what they have to eat or what they cannot eat, the American people can make those decisions for themselves," the Mississippi attorney told BBC. "It's all about free choice. To have free choice you have to have accurate information. That means Big Food, the food companies, have to start telling the truth about what's in their product. The law requires it."
The tobacco attorneys are taking an aggressive tack, claiming that companies are "misrepresenting their products, promoting them as 'natural' or 'healthy', when […] they are no such thing."
Barrett's team is focusing on the mislabeling of food and the prevailing practice of ingredient euphemisms. “It’s a crime—and that makes it a crime to sell it,” Barrett told The New York Times. “That means these products should be taken off the shelves.”
One example he gives is hidden sugars in processed food. Barrett cites the example of greek yogurt maker, Chobani Inc—one of their targets—which lists "evaporated cane juice" as an ingredient in their pomegranate-flavored yogurt, rather than sugar. According to the suit filed earlier this year, the FDA has repeatedly warned companies not to use the term because it is “false and misleading.” In total, the attorneys filed 25 cases against food industry players that also include ConAgra Foods, PepsiCo, Heinz and General Mills.
Barrett draws a parallel between his infamous tobacco lawsuits and this latest round:
"The American people assume that if a product is legal to sell, then these people are telling the truth about this product. If it's legal to sell, it must be ok, otherwise the government would have done something about it. And that's what they thought about cigarettes."
Another similarity is the money at stake. Big Tobacco ended up settling for more than $200 billion in 1998. The suits against Big Food are class actions, where the class is defined as every person who purchased one of the misbranded products in the previous four years. For most of the food companies targeted, that could also amount to billions.
"I'm 68 years old, frankly I don't need the cash, the law's been good to me." According to BBC, what gets Barrett fired up is the epidemic of obesity among young people; the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports around two thirds of Americans over the age of 20 are now obese or overweight.
"This is my job, but here we have an opportunity to really help people."