Last year, the Corn Refiners Association began a campaign to rebrand controversial sweetener high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as “corn sugar.” American sugar farmers and refiners, seeing an impact on sales and product perceptions, have filed a suit to stop corn processing companies from marketing HFCS as a “natural” product equivalent to real sugar. The sugar producers are specifically seeking an injunction to end the ad campaign and also seek damages, including compensation for corrective advertising.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in LA by the Western Sugar Cooperative, Michigan Sugar Company and C & H Sugar Company, claims the “corn sugar” branding campaign financed by the corn refining companies constitutes false advertising under both federal and state law. The cooperative says the processors’ campaign was launched as a way to thwart declining sales of HFCS.
Companies named as defendants include Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, Corn Products International, Penford Products, Roquette America, Tate & Lyle Ingredients Americas and the companies’ marketing and lobbying organization, The Corn Refiners Association.
“This suit is about false advertising, pure and simple,” said Inder Mathur, Western Sugar Cooperative President/CEO. “If consumers are concerned about your product, then you should improve it or explain its benefits, not try to deceive people about its name or distort scientific facts.”
According to the complaint, consumers have increasingly sought to avoid food and drinks containing HFCS, because of its possible role in the obesity epidemic and other nutritional and health problems, or simply to avoid non-natural ingredients. As a result, food and beverage makers have been replacing HFCS with real sugar, and the corn refining industry has seen HFCS sales steadily decline.
The sugar producers charge the defendants with trying to resuscitate HFCS sales through a marketing blitz aimed at changing consumer perceptions of HFCS by equating it with real sugar.
While the corn refining industry has petitioned the FDA for approval to substitute “corn sugar” for “high-fructose corn syrup” on ingredient labels, the sugar-producing plaintiffs assert that the defendants did not even wait for the FDA’s response before beginning their “corn sugar” branding efforts.
Meanwhile, Audrae Erickson, president, Corn Refiners Association responded to the suit in a statement: “Sugar is sugar. High fructose corn syrup and sugar are nutritionally and metabolically equivalent; experts have supported this claim, including the American Dietetic Association and the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
“The name ‘corn sugar’ more accurately describes this sweetener and helps clarify food products labeling for manufacturers and consumers alike, the statement said. The Corn Refiners Association says it actually petitioned the FDA in September 2010 to more succinctly and accurately describe what this natural ingredient is and where it comes from—corn.
“High fructose corn syrup makes many healthy foods palatable and affordable for American consumers. It is disappointing that another sweetener would sue the competition for its own gain – and stand in the way of consumer clarity about added sugars in the diet…Simply, this lawsuit is without merit, and we will vigorously defend our right to petition the FDA to clear up consumer confusion about the name,” said Erickson. “We stand by the message in our ads and the science behind it.”