Class Scorches American Heart Association
CAMDEN, N.J. (CN) - The American Heart Association defrauds consumers by selling its "Heart Check Mark" to Campbell Soup, whose products' true designation should be: "Unhealthy, but maybe not as bad for you as other products," a class action claims in Federal Court.
Lead plaintiff Kerry O'Shea sued Campbell Soup Co. and the American Heart Association in Federal Court. O'Shea claims the Heart Association sells/licenses it "Heart Check mark" logo as a "certification" of a heart-healthy food, even for foods that are processed and unhealthy.
Campbell Soup has purchased certification for "at least 97 (ninety-seven) of its products," the complaint states, "and pays annual fees to maintain these products' certifications."
The 41-page lawsuit begins: "The AHA claims that its mission is 'to build healthier lives, free of cardiovascular diseases and stroke. That single purpose drives all we do.' This worth mission is, in truth, tainted by what the AHA does not tell the public: that for a fee, the AHA will allow manufacturers of unhealthy, processed foods - including over thirty varieties of Campbell's soups - to place the AHA's certification and endorsement on products that run directly counter to the AHA's stated mission.
"The AHA's nationally recognized 'Heart-Check Mark' certification thus fools consumers by misrepresenting that products bearing the Heart-Check Mark certification meet the AHA's heart-healthy nutritional guidelines. That misrepresentation (or omission of the true facts) is unfair, deceptive, and misleading, because the AHA's Heart-Check Mark certification does not signify adherence to those guidelines.
"Properly characterized, the real meaning of the AHA's Heart-Check mark certification is, 'Unhealthy, but maybe not as bad for you as other products.'
"As alleged herein, the AHA, for a fee, abandons its general, noncommercial dietary and nutritional guidelines - which categorically rule out unhealthy processed products, including Campbell's soups, as demonstrated below - and agrees to certify as heart-healthy products that merely meet the minimum criteria for certain FDA-regulated health claims, rather than the AHA's own more demeaning standards. The deceptive practice not only causes consumers to overpay for Campbell's AHA-certified soups, but also presents substantial health risks to all consumers, including the more than five million American consumers suffering from congestive heart failure.
"The AHA's Heart-Check Mark certification scheme runs directly counter to its noncommercial nutritional guidance. Instead of aiding the consuming public, the AHA's certification scheme confuses and misleads the consuming public, because it employs standards that have nothing to do with the AHA's general nutritional guidelines.
"As a result, the AHA certifies products that are far less healthy, and far less heart-healthy than it otherwise advises consumers to eat. A single serving of Campbell's AHA certified soups contains nearly three times the amount of sodium permitted by the AHA's noncommercial nutritional guidelines, while a full can contains between six and seven times that amount.
"Indeed, manufacturers, including Campbell's, buy AHA approval, by paying a fee on a per-product basis, plus administrative costs and fees, plus additional annual fees to maintain their AHA heart-healthy product certifications and to claim endorsement and certification by that widely trusted organization.
"By the AHA selling, and Campbell's buying, the right to affix the AHA's seal of approval to its products, they falsely represent to the public that AHA-certified products manufactured by Campbell's possess some cardiovascular benefit not enjoyed by products that have not been certified by the AHA. In truth, however, the only difference between AHA-certified Campbell's products and non-certified competing products is that Campbell's has paid money to the AHA to license its logo.
"In sum, the AHA benefits from the monies paid to it by food manufacturers and the advertising and organizational name recognition that come from having its logo placed on millions of food containers. Campbell's benefits by being able to affix the AHA's Heart-Check Mark logo on the products for which it has paid for it and is able to enjoy increased sales and higher profits due to their premium pricing and perceived health advantage. These benefits to Campbell's and AHA, however, come at the substantial cost to plaintiff and the other class members, both in the form of purchasing falsely labeled products based on defendants 'heart-healthy' pretext, and materially overpaying for those products."
In an email to Courthouse News, American Heart Association spokesman Amit Chitre said: "The American Heart Association does not comment on pending litigation. But for more information about our food certification program, including our criteria, visit: www.heart.org/foodcertification. 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."
O'Shea seeks restitution and damages for consumer fraud, breach of express warranty and unjust enrichment.
O'Shea is represented by James Cecchi with Carella, Byrne, Cecchi, Olstein, Brody & Agnello, of Roseland, N.J.