ConAgra's Sustainable Seafood Questioned: False Marketing Claims Surface

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Consumers Say There’s Something Fishy About Conagra Brands’ “Sustainable” Marketing Campaign – And They’re Not Buying It.

When consumers purchase seafood products marketed as “sustainable” – typically at a premium price –  they expect it to be caught with minimal environmental harm.

However, some companies are simply slapping the word on products that don’t meet the mark, according to a slew of recent lawsuits filed against companies selling fish.

One of the companies facing allegations that it is misleading American consumers over its fishing methods is ConAgra Brands. 

On March 25, a Chicago federal judge ruled that ConAgra must face a proposed class action lawsuit that claims the company tricked consumers into believing that some of its Mrs. Paul's and Van de Kamp's fish products are sustainably sourced, Reuters reports.

Refusing to dismiss the case, U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall ruled that it’s still an open question whether ConAgra's packaging misled reasonable consumers.

Judge sinks ConAgra’s hopes of an easy dismissal

ConAgra deceptively labeled its range of fish fingers and fillets as being “Good for the Environment,” the lawsuit says. 

The marketing was false, because ConAgra sourced pollock in the Bering Sea from Russian fisheries that used huge, unethical nets to catch fish, the plaintiffs allege. They say some of the nets were larger than two American football fields and – in the process of catching pollock – trapped and killed endangered fish species.

While ConAgra tried to claim its “Good for the Environment” labels on packaging were simply honest exaggerations, or “puffery,” in the name of advertising, the judge did not agree.

"'Good for the Environment' impresses on consumers that the fish was caught in an environmentally friendly manner," Kendall wrote in her ruling. 

"Consumers have no obligation to question the labels they see on the packaging or parse through its language to determine how 'Good for the Environment' should be interpreted."

Sustainability claims ‘meaningless,’ consumers say

The consumers also say ConAgra claims on its packaging that the nonprofit Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) had certified the fisheries as “sustainable.” However, considering their allegations about the unethical large-net fishing practices, that certification is rendered "meaningless,” they allege. 

The consumers said they would not have bought or would have paid less for ConAgra's fish products had they known the truth.

Judge Kendall said the Federal Trade Commission has warned companies not to make environmental claims that might appear unfair or deceptive.

Other fishery companies tangled in legal nets

ConAgra is not the only company to face claims of deception in the fish product industry. 

In December, a California federal judge refused to dismiss a class action lawsuit against Red Lobster that alleges the company also deceptively markets its Maine lobster and shrimp products as “sustainable,” Intrafish reports.

In 2022, an Illinois judge allowed claims to go ahead on a class action lawsuit alleging the national grocery retailer ALDI deceptively marketed its Atlantic Salmon as “sustainably sourced,” when it sources its salmon from environmentally destructive fish farms.

Bumble Bee Foods LLC was also hit with a proposed class action lawsuit last year alleging it duped consumers with false promises that its seafood products are “sustainable,” Bloomberg Law reports.

The consumers in the ConAgra case are seeking unspecified damages for a nationwide class of consumers who bought nine ConAgra products: Mrs. Paul's Crispy Battered Fillets, Crunchy Breaded Fillets, Fish Sticks, Fish Fingers and Beer Battered Fillets; and Van de Kamp's Crispy Battered Fillets, Crunchy Breaded Fillets, Fish Sticks and Beer Battered Fillets.

The plaintiffs are represented by Gary M. Klinger, Rachel L. Soffin, and Harper T. Segui of Milberg Coleman Bryson Phillips Grossman LLC; Melissa S. Weiner, Daniel L. Warshaw, and Michael H. Pearson of Pearson Warshaw LLP; and Ari Kresch and Wendy Kerner of Kresch Legal Services PR PLLC.

The Conagra sustainable seafood class action lawsuit is Bohen et al v ConAgra Brands Inc, Case No. 23-01298, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

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