General Mills hit with lawsuit over gluten-free Cheerios snafu

by Eric Schroeder
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Gluten-free Cheerios and Honey Nut Cheerios
General Mills recalled a reported 1.8 million boxes of Cheerios.

SACRAMENTO, CALIF. — Sometimes, saying you’re sorry isn’t enough. Two shoppers in California — Keri Van Lengen and Deborah Nava — on Oct. 30 filed a class action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California against General Mills, Inc. for “deceptive, unfair and false advertising and merchandising practices” regarding the Minneapolis-based company’s gluten-free Cheerios and Honey Nut Cheerios.

The lawsuit comes a little more than three weeks after General Mills apologized for confusion at its Lodi, Calif., facility that the company said it believes led to wheat flour being introduced inadvertently into the plant’s gluten-free oat flour system, tainting cereal produced at the location.

As a result of the contamination, General Mills recalled a reported 1.8 million boxes of Cheerios, including 13 lots of Honey Nut Cheerios and 4 lots of original Cheerios.

In their lawsuit filing, Ms. Van Lengen and Ms. Nava outlined a number of ways in which General Mills had participated in deceptive, unfair and false advertising.

“Defendants’ use of the ‘gluten-free’ label constitutes a ‘fraudulent’ business practice within the meaning of Business and Professions Code section 17200, et seq.,” the lawsuit stated. “The applicable food regulations are carefully crafted to require that nutrient content claims be presented in a qualified and contextualized manner to protect the consuming public from being deceived. Defendants’ non-compliant ‘gluten-free’ label is an unqualified nutrient content claim that poses the very risk of deception that regulations were promulgated against. By labeling products ‘gluten-free’ defendants created the misimpression that their products do not contain gluten and are therefore safe for those persons who may be sensitive to gluten to eat.

“Defendants used the ‘gluten-free’ label to induce plaintiffs and class members to purchase the Cheerios products. Had defendants not included the ‘gluten-free’ statement on the Cheerios products, plaintiffs and class members would not have purchased Cheerios.”

The plaintiffs are seeking an award of compensatory, exemplary, punitive and statutory penalties and damages, including interest, to be proven at trial, as well as an award for the return of the purchase prices of the gluten-free Cheerios with interest from the time it was paid, for the reimbursement of the reasonable expenses occasioned by the sale, for damages and for reasonable attorneys’ fees.

General Mills has a standing practice not to comment on pending litigation, but in an Oct. 5 blog posting following the recall the company issued an apology.

Jim Murphy, General Mills
Jim Murphy, senior v.p. and president of the Cereal division, at General Mills
“We sincerely apologize to the gluten-free community and to anyone who may have been impacted,” Jim Murphy, senior vice-president, and president of the Cereal division, at General Mills, wrote on Oct. 5. “We care deeply about making safe, nutritious, gluten-free products more widely available, and we’ve worked very hard to ensure our products are gluten-free. Today we must acknowledge that we failed to meet that commitment for a time, and we’re recalling all affected products as a result.”
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