Sugar Association seeks countersuit dismissal

by Jeff Gelski
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WASHINGTON – The Sugar Association and the Corn Refiners Association both are arguing for their free speech rights in a lawsuit and countersuit in which they are adversaries.

The Sugar Association, Washington, on Oct. 29 filed a motion in a U.S. district court in Los Angeles to dismiss a countersuit made by four manufacturers of high-fructose corn syrup. The countersuit filed Sept. 7 alleges The Sugar Association is deceiving consumers into believing that processed sugar is safer and more healthful than HFCS. The four manufacturers — Archer Daniels Midland Co., Cargill, Ingredion Inc. and Tate & Lyle Ingredients Americas, Inc. — are all member companies of the Washington-based Corn Refiners Association.

The Sugar Association said its information on HFCS is non-commercial speech while a program from the Corn Refiners Association is commercial speech.

“The Sugar Association has been targeted by ADM, Cargill and the other corn processors for exercising a cherished right — free speech, which is at the core of the First Amendment,” said Adam Fox, co-lead attorney of the firm Squire Sanders. “As our motion notes, The Sugar Association did not commission any paid advertising. It hired no actors, directors or cameramen. It purchased no television commercials or spreads in newspapers or magazines. It made no presentations at trade shows, in webinars or in the boardrooms of any of its members’ customers. It did not even write or call them.

“It is outrageous that these companies are seeking to stifle a legitimate public discussion about HFCS, particularly because they previously said that stopping their own multimillion dollar commercial advertising would be a form of censorship.”

Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Association, on Oct. 30 said, “It is remarkable that The Sugar Association has suddenly stumbled upon the principle of free speech, given how hard they have tried to censor our consumer education program. Perhaps their new found belief in freedom of speech will motivate them to drop their self-serving lawsuit to silence our efforts to educate the public about high-fructose corn syrup.”

The origins of the countersuit date to a lawsuit filed on April 22, 2011, by The Sugar Association and other sugar growers. The still-pending original lawsuit said the C.R.A. claim that HFCS is corn sugar is false and misleading. The Sugar Association and sugar growers cited Internet advertising, exhibitions at professional organizations, television commercials, print advertisements and the web site www.sweetsurprise.com.

The Food and Drug Administration on May 30, 2012, denied a C.R.A. petition that corn sugar be allowed as a common or usual name for HFCS. Since then, the C.R.A. has stopped referring to HFCS as corn sugar.

The countersuit from the HFCS manufacturers cites news releases and other information from The Sugar Association that criticize HFCS. For example, in the January 2012 issue of the Sugar Association’s “The Sugar Packet,” John McElligott, M.D., a Fellow of the American College of Physicians, said he agreed that HFCS was the “crack cocaine” of all sweeteners.

The Sugar Association in its Oct. 29, 2012, filing said the countersuit is premised on two articles originally posted by a medical doctor and a consumer group as well as press releases, web site posts and an opinion-editorial article. The Sugar Association in its Oct. 29 filing also addressed C.R.A. countersuit claims that The Sugar Association has funded groups that criticize HFCS.

“The corn refiners make numerous allegations — many on information and belief — about the role of plaintiffs other than The Sugar Association but name none of them as counterclaim defendants,” The Sugar Association said in its filing. “They also launch a vague and spurious attack on non-party Citizens for Health, a consumer rights group, and intimate something nefarious about its past relationship with The Sugar Association, but make no specific charges against the group.”

After the HFCS manufacturers filed the countersuit, a Sept. 18 Bloomberg article said The Sugar Association gave $300,000 to Citizens for Health, a Washington-based nonprofit organization. The November/December issue of Mother Jones also includes a story about the sugar industry funding other groups.

Ms. Erickson on Oct. 30 said, “What these recent news reports confirm is The Sugar Association and its members have spent huge amounts of money to buy the support of consumer front groups to attack high-fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners.”

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