Campbell Soup Co. and the American Heart Association are the targets of a lawsuit that alleges soup products are marketed as more "heart-healthy" than they really are.
Campbell, based in Camden, N.J., has been making soups since 1869. While it owns a number of brands, such as Pepperidge Farm and V8, it's famously known for its cans of soups.
Dozens of Campbell soups have a "Heart-Check" label, certified by the American Heart Association to be "heart-healthy," as listed in the organization's website.
Kerry O'Shea, a resident of Huntington Beach, Calif., in Orange County, is the named plaintiff for the lawsuit, which she and her attorneys hope to expand as a class action. The lawsuit was filed with the U.S. District Court of New Jersey on Tuesday.
Adam Levitt, O'Shea's attorney and partner with Grant & Eisenhofer, said, "What we hope to accomplish is first of all to obtain compensation for our client and other class members for the purchase of Campbell's products that were falsely represented to them, and we also want to send a message to corporate America that mislabeling and misrepresenting product qualities just isn't the right thing to do."
O'Shea declined to comment.
"None of Campbell's AHA-certified products meet the AHA's own noncommercial dietary and nutrition standards because those products' sodium levels – 410 milligrams per serving, or between 820 and 1,025 milligrams per unit – far exceed the AHA's (and the FDA's) low-sodium threshold of 140 milligrams of sodium per serving," the lawsuit states.
"The problem is AHA actually uses two different sets of nutritional criteria," Levitt said. "The AHA standards say consumers shouldn't eat more than 1,500 mg per day and should also choose low sodium foods which they've defined as having under 140 mg of sodium."
However, Levitt said, the standards for which companies can use the heart-check label are 480 mg of sodium per serving.
A spokesman for the American Heart Association said the organization does not comment on pending litigation.
The American Heart Association's website indicates Heart-Check food certification program guidelines include 480 mg or less.
The association said in a statement, "Our Food Certification Program regularly conducts laboratory testing to verify that products earning the Heart Check meet our nutritional criteria, which are more stringent than those of the Food and Drug Administration. Food manufacturers applying to the Food Certification Program pay an administrative fee, which is only sufficient for the program's product testing, public information and program operating expenses. If a food product does not meet our criteria, it does not receive our Heart Check certification. No public donations are used to support the Heart-Check program."
Carla Burigatto, spokesperson for Campbell, said the firm has not been served so could not comment.
"We have complete confidence in the accuracy of our labels and our marketing communications and that they meet legal and regulatory requirements," she said.
O'Shea is alleging violation of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act, breach of express warranty, and unjust enrichment.
In the lawsuit, O'Shea alleges "misrepresentations and/or omissions" similar to the Healthy Request product labeling in print, broadcast and web advertisements, which state Campbell's products as having "healthy levels of sodium" and other descriptions.
The amount in damages sought is not specified in the lawsuit. The potential class is defined as "individuals in the United States who purchased any Campbell's 'Healthy Request' soup bearing an AHA Heart-Check Mark symbol on its label", the lawsuit states.
Campbell and the American Heart Association will be served in the coming days, Levitt said. After that, they have 30 days to either answer the complaint or file a motion to dismiss it.
Levitt said many people trust the American Heart Association's certification in their food shopping decisions.
According to the association's research, "85 percent of shoppers find the mark on packages 'helpful' or 'very helpful'. The Heart-Check Mark symbol increases by 75 percent the likelihood that a shopper will purchase the product that bears the mark," the lawsuit states. "When faced with a choice of similar products, the Heart-Check Mark symbol positively influences 60 percent of shoppers' purchase decisions."
"So all the more reason that there is public trust in the AHA heart checkmark," Levitt said. "We believe the fact that AJA and Campbell breached that trust is highly problematic."