Tech

A lawyer filed more than 100 lawsuits over vanilla flavoring in foods and drinks, arguing most of it is fake

  • Spence Sheehan has filed more than 100 lawsuits over vanilla flavoring. 
  • He argued companies can not say their product has vanilla if it’s not mostly from vanilla beans.
  • Experts have said these cases have no merit because customers don’t expect real vanilla. 
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Over the past two years, New York lawyer Spencer Sheehan has filed more than 100 lawsuits against companies marketing products with imitation vanilla flavoring as simply “vanilla.” 

Sheehan told Insider he started these cases after noticing a bottle of A&W Root Beer had a label saying “made with aged vanilla” on it. He said he was skeptical about whether it contained authentic vanilla. 

“I didn’t really know too much about the vanilla flavoring at that time, but I could sense that something was amiss and eventually I gathered more information and was able to connect with many more people who are more knowledgeable than me and after that, I filed a couple of cases,” Sheehan said. 

Companies like Chobani, McDonald’s, the drink-maker Keurig Dr Pepper, and the Trader Joe’s grocery chain have all been targeted by the suits, which involve various products, from ice cream to yogurt, milk, and coffee creamer.

Sheehan says he believes companies are tricking customers since their products usually only have a tiny amount of pure vanilla. 

Pure vanilla is harvested from vanilla beans. HuffPost reported in 2019 that a kilogram cost around $500. From planting to harvesting and curing, it can take between 12 to 14 months before vanilla beans can be used to produce the vanilla extract. 

Artificial vanilla, which is more commonly used, is made from a synthetic form of vanillin, the main compound in vanilla beans that gives them their flavor. Synthetic vanillin is made from things like wood pulp, clove oil, and – at one point – the anal glands of beavers, HuffPost reported. 

Imitation vanilla can be at least 20 times cheaper to produce than natural vanilla.

Legal experts told Insider Sheehan’s cases don’t have much merit because customers don’t expect natural vanilla in products as long as the products taste like vanilla. 

But Sheehan said it’s uncommon for people to know the difference and that they should be able to make up their own minds about whether or not they care. 

“I object and disagree that people don’t expect this. That would mean that people are so smart as to know all of these things. Like how should somebody know all of this technical stuff?” he said. “They know when a label shares artificial flavors on it and that’s what the labels do say on most products in the supermarket … every product it’s so common on, every carton artificially flavored, naturally flavored.” 

He added: “I think people expect what they’re told.”

What’s on the label

Sheehan argues companies are violating labeling requirements set by the Food and Drug Administration, by not labeling products properly when they place just a vanilla label when it’s actually mostly imitation product.

He said there are more special regulations from the FDA on vanilla than on any other product used for flavoring because “it is quite expensive and it’s very easily adulterated, meaning it’s very difficult to tell the difference between real vanilla and fake vanilla.” 

However, over a 12-month period, New York courts dismissed four different complaints challenging vanilla-flavoring claims. 

“Multiple judicial opinions out of New York’s federal courts, including a decision issued earlier this week in Manhattan, have dismissed cases predicated on this ‘vanilla-labeling’ theory,” Tommy Tobin, an attorney at Perkins Coie LLP, told Insider late last month. 

In a recent newsletter, the firm said while the vanilla cases dominated food litigation in 2020, they may be “nearing an endpoint” this year, adding there has been “increasing impatience” from courts when it comes to the topic. 

“This is a remarkable trend and represents about a quarter of overall food-litigation filings in 2019 and 2020,” Tobin said.

McDonald’s, in a filing last month to support a motion to dismiss the case Sheehan brought against it, referenced several other vanilla-related cases that were dismissed.

A case Sheehan filed against Wegmans over ice cream labels was also thrown out. The court argued buyers’ main concern is getting ice cream that tastes like vanilla and not necessarily something derived from the vanilla bean. 

“The buyer’s first desire is for ice cream, and when he is in the frozen food area he must select, from many choices (chocolate, lemon, mint, lime, etc.) the one he wants. Thus the large-type “Vanilla” is of immediate use. Of course he is not looking for a bowl of vanilla, and the next largest words confirm that the container holds ice cream. Those who prefer natural ingredients will note that it has natural vanilla flavor, and no artificial flavors,” District Judge Louis Stanton in the Southern District Court of New York said. 

On February 22, US District Judge Katherine Polk Failla of the Southern District Court of New York dismissed a case Sheehan filed on behalf of a plaintiff against Oregon Chai, a company that makes flavored chai. 

Sheehan said he’s always had a passion for consumer issues. Since he started filing vanilla lawsuits he’s been able to expand his firm from just one part-time paralegal to now having two full-time attorneys. “I have an interest in other consumer issues. I don’t want to be pigeonholed,” he said.

“I may not have a lot of non-vanilla cases, but vanilla is the most unique and interesting.”

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