(CN) – A consumer advocacy organization claims a popular spice distributor is misleading the public about how much pepper is actually in its containers.
McCormick & Company Inc. has been using about 25 percent less pepper and 20 percent less peppercorn in its familiar red and white containers without changing prices or container size, the National Consumers League claims in a lawsuit filed Tuesday.
The advocacy group sued McCormick and Giant of Maryland LLC in Washington, D.C. Superior Court. It alleges violation of the District of Columbia Consumer Protection Procedures Act by both defendants.
“In short, McCormick sold less product in the same containers and for the same unit price in a manner intended to, and with the tendency to, deceive consumers and the general public,” the complaint states. “By maintaining rather than decreasing the tin and grinder sizes, McCormick perpetrates the illusion that it is providing the same amount of black pepper and peppercorn for the same price that it has traditionally charged consumers.”
The NCL says the company did so in order to combat rising black pepper prices without the cut to its market share that a price increase might cause. McCormick owns 22 percent of the spices and seasonings market and does business in 110 countries, according to the complaint and the company’s website.
The recognizable metal tins, traditionally sold in two, four and eight-ounce sizes, make up as much as 70 percent of the country’s black pepper sales and have become the industry standard for ground pepper containers, the complaint states.
The consumer group claims it purchased a tin of McCormick brand pepper at a Giant Foods store in the Tenleytown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. that was marked and priced as if it contained two ounces of pepper, but it actually held just 1.5 ounces.
“By misleading consumers in this manner, McCormick is able to offset the high cost of the commodity and growing competitive pressure while preserving its margins and market share,” the lawsuit states.
Sally Greenberg, the NCL’s executive director, called the problem of misleading or dishonest food labeling rampant, in part because of the Food and Drug Administration’s “hands off” approach to enforcement.
“There’s no cop on the beat except for non-profits like ours, NGO’s like ours,” she said.
Giant Foods is named as a co-defendant in the complaint for allegedly placing “slack-filled” pepper containers next to identically-sized containers with a full load of pepper in them without reflecting the quantity difference.
“Defendant Giant violated the Unit Pricing Act, when it provided the wrong unit price for the ground pepper sold to NCL, consumers and the general public,” the complaint states.
Watkins Inc., a McCormick competitor, filed a similar lawsuit in a Minnesota district court in June, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported.
McCormick told the newspaper that it is not deceiving consumers.
“Due to an unprecedented increase in the commodity costs of black pepper in the global market, we made the decision to reduce the net weight of our black pepper products,” the company said in a statement. “Our priority was to maintain the integrity and quality of our product while avoiding significant increases in the price.”
Greenberg said she was not aware of the Minnesota lawsuit and that the two are not connected, though it is referenced in the NCL complaint.
The advocacy group seeks a declaration that McCormick and Giant’s conduct is illegal, as well as treble or statutory damages. It is represented by Tracy Rezvani of Rezvani Volin P.C. in Washington, D.C.
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