Saturday, December 02, 2006

Kraft gets sued over fake guacamole

Holy guacamole! Kraft sued over lack of avocado in dip
By Jerry Hirsch
Los Angeles Times
Peanut butter is made from peanuts, tomato paste is made from tomatoes, and guacamole is made from avocados, right?
Wrong. The guacamole sold by Kraft Foods Inc. [owned by Altria (formerly Phillip Morris Co.)], one of the best-selling avocado dips in the nation, calls for modified food starch, hefty amounts of coconut and soybean oils, and a dose of food coloring. The dip contains precious little avocado, but many customers mistake it for wholly guacamole.
On Wednesday, a Los Angeles woman sued the Northfield, Ill., food company, alleging that it committed fraud by calling its dip guacamole. Her lawyer says suits against other purveyors of “fake guacamole” will be filed soon.
The suit highlights the liberty some food companies take in labeling their products.
If consumers read the fine print, they would discover that Kraft Dips Guacamole contains less than 2 percent avocado. But few do. California avocado growers, who account for 95 percent of the U.S. avocado crop, said they didn’t know that store-bought guacamole contains little of their produce.
“We have not looked at this issue, but we might follow it now that we are aware of it,” said Tom Bellamore, the top lawyer at the California Avocado Commission.
Kraft and other food companies insist that they don’t deceive customers by skimping on the avocado. A spokeswoman for the company said most consumers understood that guacamole is part of the company’s line of “flavored” dips.
“We think customers understand that it isn’t made from avocado,” said Claire Regan, Kraft Foods’ vice president of corporate affairs. “All of the ingredients are listed on the label for consumers to reference.”
Nonetheless, Kraft is relabeling the product.
Regan said the company is in the process of changing its label to make “clearer” that it is selling “guacamole flavor” dip. She said she was not familiar with the lawsuit.
Frequent litigant
Brenda Lifsey, the plaintiff, who has often sued other corporations for money, said she made a three-layer dip with Kraft guacamole last year only to discover that it contained almost none of the ingredient she most expected: avocado.
“It just didn’t taste avocadoey,” said Lifsey, who identified herself as a federal employee who lives in Los Angeles. “I looked at the ingredients and found there was almost no avocado in it.”
In her suit against Kraft, Lifsey is asking the Los Angeles Superior Court to stop Kraft from marketing the dip as guacamole. She also wants attorneys’ fees and unspecified punitive damages.
Lifsey has a record of filing lawsuits against large corporations – and going after the green. A few years ago, Lifsey sued Sears, claiming that the retailer misrepresented that its Craftsman tools were U.S.-made. She also sued Carfax vehicle reporting service, alleging that it did not have access to police accident reports in California and other states even though it advertised that it could provide vehicle history records.
Unlike peanut butter, which by law must contain at least 90 percent peanuts, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has no legal standard mandating how much avocado should be in guacamole. The FDA only requires that the labeling be truthful and not misleading, said Michael Herndon, an agency spokesman.
“For FDA to say that the food is misbranded because it contains only a small amount of avocado, we would have to find that the labeling is misleading, which would likely require some consumer data to prove the labeling is misleading,” he said.
Consumer advocates say that the FDA should either set standards or force Kraft and other manufacturers to better disclose how little avocado is in their dip.
“It is really deceptive marketing,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, which three years ago called for more accurate labeling of guacamole dips.
At the time, Jacobson said the producers were “begging to be sued.”
Aztec fuel
Like much of the prepared guacamole sold in supermarkets, Kraft guacamole is essentially a whipped paste made from partially hydrogenated soybean and coconut oils, corn syrup, whey, and food starch. Yellow and blue dyes give it the guacamole green color.
That’s probably not what the Aztecs had in mind when they invented guacamole about 700 years ago. They made a sauce called ahuaca-mulli, which roughly translates to avocado mixture, according to the avocado commission. The dip was prepared by mashing avocados, sometimes with tomatoes and onions in a molcajete, a Mexican mortar and pestle.
In the modern recipe, some cooks add lime juice to keep the guacamole from discoloring. The dip has become a U.S. tradition, especially on Super Bowl Sunday. Some 50 million pounds of guacamole were consumed during the big game this year, according to Hass Avocado Board in Irvine, Calif.
Kraft declined to say how much guacamole it sells in the United States, but it’s a tiny fraction of the company’s $34 billion in annual sales.

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