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Judge tells area breakfast eaters who sued over what sweetens their cereal: You get nuttin' honey

Box of cereal

For the second time in two months, a federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit by two Boston-area women who claimed they were not just put out but deserving of damages because honey is not the main sweetener in Honey Bunches of Oats cereal.

In a suit filed in US District Court in Boston last October, Anita Lima of Medford and Susan Wrublewski of Framingham alleged that they never would have bought Honey Bunches of Oats products if they'd known that they were flavored primarily with various types of substances labeled directly as "sugar," rather than with honey, which they believed was healthier than sugar.

Although the ingredients list on the side of Honey Bunches of Oats packages makes this clear, the two said they didn't look at that because they were convinced by what they said was deceptive TV advertising by the cereal's maker, Post Consumers Products, and by the cereal's packaging, which shows a honey dipper surrounded by sun rays in a honey color and a bee. The two were seeking damages for not only themselves but for Honey Bunches of Oats eaters across the country.

In August, Judge Allison Burroughs dismissed the suit, in a decision that hinges on the fact that the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which governs food marketing, refers to "primary recognizable flavors" and that even if honey is not the main sweetener in Honey Bunches of Oats, it is one of its primary recognizable flavors and so is acceptable for promotion in ads and packaging.

Plaintiffs seemingly understand that honey is both a sweetener and a flavoring agent, yet they do not explain why they concluded that the word honey and the associated imagery necessarily meant that honey was the primary sweetener, rather than
referring to the flavor of the cereal. ...

Plaintiffs also assert, however, that some varieties of Honey Bunches of Oats have other ingredients with more distinctive flavor characteristics than honey, such as almonds, that are present in greater quantities, therefore presumably contributing more to the cereal’s flavor profile than honey. ... But that stops short of claiming that honey is not among Honey Bunches of Oats’ primary recognizable flavors.

But, Burroughs continued, even if she were willing to accept the plaintiffs' argument, Post nowhere claims in its advertising and marketing just how much of the cereal's sweetness comes from honey, but that the ingredients list makes it clear honey is not the primary sweetener, and the company can hardly be blamed for the two not looking at that before deciding to buy Honey Bunches of Oats.

Even a reasonable consumer who presumed honey to be a sweetener rather than a flavor would see that Honey Bunches of Oats did not claim to be sweetened exclusively or primarily with honey and therefore would have recognized that the cereal might be sweetened with some honey, but also with other sweeteners. Assuming such a consumer cared about how the cereal was sweetened, he or she would then have checked the ingredient list and discovered that honey, although a sweetener, was not the most prominent.

Lima and Wrublewski's lawyers, based in Framingham and New York City, asked Burroughs to reconsider and to let the case go to a jury.

But in a decision today, Burroughs said their case was still too soggy to go any furher. Although the question of whether the two plaintiffs felt misled by the packaging is, in fact, a question for a jury, Burroughs wrote that they had failed to prove in their complaint that the packaging had "the capacity to mislead," that she stood by her ruling that the relevant federal law relates to "primary recognizable flavors" and that the law defines "misleading" in part as products that claim to have an ingredient they do not, which was not the case here.

She compared their case to one involving packaged "hazelnut creme" coffee that did not actually contain any hazelnuts.

Because honey is a characterizing flavor and the cereal actually includes honey as an ingredient, it was permissible for Post to use the images of honey and bees. If the cereal did not contain honey, then Post would be required to include sufficient cautionary language explaining that it was naturally or artificially flavored. Because the cereal does contain honey, however, the burden is on Plaintiffs to plead why Post’s packaging and marketing would lead a consumer to believe that the cereal was not only honey flavored and contained honey, but also that honey was the primary sweetener.

Complaint (611k PDF).
Original ruling (1.1M PDF).
Ruling on request to reconsider (60k PDF).

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In a better world, ingredient labels would have to list exact percentages for water and sugar. Different sweeteners would also have to be added together and sorted under a aggregated "Sugars" ingredient, to keep makers of things like Fig Newtons from using a combination of sugar and corn syrups to keep "Sugars" from being listed as the first ingredient.

Voting closed 15

Aggregated sugars are right there in the Nutrition Facts box.

Voting closed 11

Give thanks you have food to eat. You shouldn't be eating processed food, anyway!!!!

Voting closed 12

Feel like if they really cared about this, they could have just made oatmeal with honey on it at home. I am worried we're running out of real grown ups in this country.

Voting closed 39

It's unfortunate that this type of incredibly deceptive branding is considered normal by our society and government. We need more people out here with the time and money to fight these corporations that are skewing reality.

I'm sure sales will still be amazing if they change the product name to "Corn Syrup and Sugar Bunches of Corn... oh, and I guess there's a lil' honey & oat in there too"

Voting closed 20

Incredibly deceptive? If this is all it takes to deceive someone, I don't think they should be allowed out of the house without a chaperone.

Voting closed 24

This is a mass produced cereal made by a giant company. Why would these women assume that they were getting a cereal primarily sweetened with honey?

Misled? Read the friggin' package and stop being sheep minded by television and advertising.

Voting closed 25

Don’t they have anything better to do?

Voting closed 22

They shoulda went after Grape Nuts.

Crunch Berries is off the table though. Someone tried that in 2009. The judge was like.. hey, wait a minute... there is no such thing a crunch berry in nature.

I would have so judgesplained that to the plaintiff for over a half hour... repeatedly asking how they thought there was such thing as a crunch berry and furthermore how they thought they could convince ME there was such thing as a crunch berry.

Voting closed 28

So, she's a serial suer.

Voting closed 19

If she's so obsessed with honey, she should try maintaining her own hive. Then she can sweeten her cereal with as much as she deems appropriate.

Voting closed 9

The issue, however, is deceptive advertising. In this case, the judge ruled they failed to, well, make their case, but they were never arguing they needed more honey in their lives but that they bought a product with a certain expectations, allegedly based on advertising and product design.

Voting closed 8

Til they find out what chicken fingers are. Their heads will explode.

Voting closed 37

I hope this doesn't impact my lawsuit against Rice Crispies.

Voting closed 17

The judge discussed a case involving Cheez-Its and another case with the glorious name of:

In re: 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese

Voting closed 18

I remember when I was a kid that honey nut Cheerios or some kind of honey flavored cereal came with a little plastic honey bear that hung onto the side of the cereal bowl. It was a kind of comforting presence to have him there before going off into the cruel world of 4th grade.

Voting closed 11

One of your bestest headlines Adam. I 'member those commercials!
Tip of the cap to ya!

Voting closed 15

Ice tea, doesn't contain any ice tea. Lawsuit?!

Voting closed 12

How much money was wasted, and misery generated, by this nonsense perpetuated by trial lawyers?

This kind of crap doesn't help consumers at all, even if the lawsuit succeeds. All it does is enrich the lawyers who do this for a living, when companies find it cheaper to pay them to go away.

Some sleazy lawyers who do this all the time tried to extort money from Bartley's recently, under the guise of wheelchair accessibility. Fortunately the case was dismissed, but at what cost? Is this really the best way to improve the situation for people with mobility issues? What if the money thrown into the furnace known as legal fees had gone to building a ramp instead?

Voting closed 12