General Mills faces lawsuit over yogurt claim

Jaquelyn Salas
Jaquelyn Salas of Little Canada likes yogurt and she's heard it's good for her digestion, too. A class action lawsuit is arguing something different altogether.
MPR Photo/Martin Moylan

Jaquelyn Salas of Little Canada regularly buys yogurt at the Cub Foods Maplewood west store.

"I heard it's actually good for your digestive system and also to keep you, ah, you know," she said.

Clearly, the buzz about yogurt is that it's good for you. It's certainly the message in ads for General Mills' YoPlus yogurt, which has fiber and supposedly beneficial microorganisms.

Now, just as its archrival Dannon did, General Mills faces class action lawsuits concerning claims about the digestive benefits of yogurt.

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Class action lawyers, the Federal Trade Commission and 39 state attorneys general went after Dannon, alleging the company made false claims about the health benefits for its Activia yogurt and a related product. Dannon admitted no wrongdoing but reached settlements last year, totaling about $56 million overall. Dannon also agreed to make "clarifications" about its products.

Now, at least one of the law firms that pursued class action lawsuits against Dannon is gunning for General Mills.

"General Mills is saying YoPlus yogurt does something for your digestive health that, in fact, it doesn't do," said Cullin O'Brien, an attorney with a Florida law firm suing General Mills in four states. He accused General Mills of ripping off consumers.

YoPlus yogurt
A brand of yogurt from General Mills called YoPlus is the focus of a class-action lawsuit concerning claims about the digestive benefits of the yogurt.
MPR Photo/Martin Moylan

"It is a huge harm because you're talking about many, many consumers who have been falsely advertised to and who have either paid more for yogurt than they otherwise would have paid or bought yogurt they otherwise would not have purchased," he said.

YoPlus sells for about 40 percent more per ounce than regular Yoplait yogurt.

General Mills wouldn't comment on the litigation. But, in a court filing, the company denies misrepresenting YoPlus' health benefits.

"We will evaluate all the science we have access to related to that health claim, and we'll say whether it's allowed or not allowed," said Jennifer Thomas, the head of the Food and Drug Administration's food enforcement. Any health claim against food has to be approved by the FDA.

Thomas says the FDA has allowed only about a dozen health claims. They include, for instance, the association between whole oats and a reduced risk of heart disease.

The FDA has not approved any disease-fighting claim for yogurt. But Thomas said that doesn't preclude companies from saying yogurt or other foods can help keep people healthy "by providing substances that help with the structure or function of the body."

"We have no prior approval for those types of claims," Thomas said. "But you have to make sure that, whatever claim you're using, you have substantiation for so the claim is not false of misleading."

About two years ago, the FDA charged General Mills was making inappropriate claims about the ability of Cheerios to lower cholesterol and treat heart disease. The FDA said the language on Cheerios boxes suggested the cereal prevented or treated heart disease.

The FDA said that claim went too far and was essentially a drug claim. The agency worked with General Mills to change the labeling. A box now says the cereal can help lower cholesterol. So, far, it seems the FDA has not taken issue with any claims General Mills makes about its yogurt.

Ted Labuza, a professor in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota, said a company could make a claims about yogurt being good for people eating it, but would have to avoid any suggestion that yogurt protects against disease.

"You could say it helps maintain a healthy intestinal tract -- helping, maintain, healthy," Labuza said. "So, you're not talking about a disease."

The lawsuits against General Mills aren't close to coming to trial

Most of the class action settlement against Dannon will go toward providing the company's products to hunger programs. But the lawyers who brought the class action suit are in line to get about $10 million.

If nothing else, Dannon's yogurt has proven to be beneficial for lawyers.