Three surprising lawsuits about food

Three surprising lawsuits about food

When you think of the law and food, you probably think about…regulatory bodies, food safety, that kind of thing. 

But every now and then a lawsuit crops up that highlights the complex relationship between food, marketing, and law. Today we thought we’d share three of those standout lawsuits that piqued public attention – and caused a stir. 

1. The case of the tomato 

We all know the tomato is a fruit – because of its botanical and nutritional makeup. 

But we didn’t always know that. 

In 1983, the Supreme Court of the United States had to rule on whether tomatoes were to be classified as a fruit or a vegetable. 

The case, Nix v. Hedden, 149 U.S. 304, included opposing witness testimonies like:

"Well, it does not classify all things there, but they are correct as far as they go. It does not take all kinds of fruit or vegetables; it takes a portion of them. I think the words 'fruit' and 'vegetable' have the same meaning in trade today that they had on March 1, 1883. I understand that the term 'fruit' is applied in trade only to such plants or parts of plants as contain the seeds. There are more vegetables than those in the enumeration given in Webster's Dictionary under the term 'vegetable,' as 'cabbage, cauliflower, turnips, potatoes, peas, beans, and the like,' probably covered by the words 'and the like.'"


"I don't think the term 'fruit' or the term 'vegetables' had, in March, 1883, and prior thereto, any special meaning in trade and commerce in this country different from that which I have read here from the dictionaries."

Based on evidence rooted in how tomatoes were used in culinary practice, the US Supreme Court ruled that the tomato was a vegetable. 

2. The highly controversial Jaffa Cake case

We expect this one will be familiar to some of our UK readers. 

Jaffa Cakes, if you’ve never eaten one, are small round sweet treats with a sponge base and a dark chocolate top, and sweet orange jelly in the middle. They come in packets much like a packet of biscuits, and…well, that’s all there is to say, really. 

They’ve been in production by McVitie’s since 1927. But in 1991, Britain’s Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise challenged the company on their labelling of the treats as ‘cakes’ – arguing that they should be categorised, instead, as ‘biscuits’. 

Why does it matter?

Because of Value Added Tax (VAT). 

Under UK law, biscuits were a luxury item and the full VAT rate would be levied against them. Cakes, however, were regarded as a staple food, and zero-rated for VAT. 

So Customs and Excise ruled Jaffa Cakes as biscuits, but McVities disagreed – they appealed the decision and the issue was taken to court. 

The ruling? Jaffa Cakes are cakes, to be enjoyed VAT-free. 

3. The Nutella dispute 

Nutella – that beloved chocolate and hazelnut spread, delicious to taste and rich in sugar and palm oil. 

But its manufacturer, Ferrero USA, lost a class-action lawsuit in 2012 against a parent who put forward the claim that she had been fooled into believing it was healthy for her children to eat. 

The settlement meant that any US citizen who bought Nutella between January 2008 and February 2012 could file a claim against the company – receiving compensation of USD $4 per jar for up to five jars of Nutella purchased during that time period. 

The parent who filed the lawsuit said that she’d given her child Nutella regularly after watching ads that highlighted the spread as part of a healthy breakfast. The reality, of course, was that the product was nutritionally akin to a bar of chocolate. 

And listen; we love Nutella. But we’re also glad that the brand changed its ads and labels to provide clearer information about the product’s contents. 

Are there any F&B lawsuits that have stuck in your mind? 

These are just three of many. We’d love to know which F&B lawsuits have been seared into your memory over the years.

Until next week. 

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