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‘Italy’s #1 brand of pasta’ Barilla must face deceptive labeling class action

A magistrate judge found Barilla's packaging could deceive customers about where its pastas are made.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — A federal magistrate judge ruled pasta giant Barilla cannot duck a class action for false and deceptive advertising, finding consumers could be misled by the phrase “Italy’s #1 brand of pasta” and believe its products are actually made in Italy.

Matthew Sinatro and Jessica Prost say they purchased multiple boxes of Barilla spaghetti and angel hair pasta last year because they thought the products were made in Italy from authentic Italian ingredients— a belief reinforced by the replication of the green, red and white colors of the Italian flag on its signature blue box.

While the company originated in the 19th century as a bread and pasta shop in Parma, Italy, Barilla is now headquartered in Illinois and its pastas are made in Iowa and New York with durum wheat sourced from countries other than Italy.

In their lawsuit, Sinatro and Prost say Barilla took advantage of their readiness to pay more for pasta products that look and sound authentically Italian, and falsely tout their products as such while “cutting costs and reaping the financial benefits of manufacturing the products in the United States of America.” Barilla’s ad campaign features a website, Barilla Historical Archive, a Barilla Pasta Museum, and Barilla Academy, which Sinatro and Prost contend were “all designed to promote the brand and company’s Italian identity.”

U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna Ryu ruled Monday that Sinatro and Prost have sufficiently shown they suffered an economic injury because they would not have purchased the pasta had they known it was not made in Italy.

Their lawsuit bears some similarities to a class action consumers brought against King’s Hawaiian, a Los Angeles-based bakery that fended off claims that its packaging gives the mistaken impression its original “Hawaiian” rolls are actually made in Hawaii. Its label prominently features a three-point crown suggestive of the crown of a pineapple and includes “Est. 1950,” and “Hilo, Hawaii,” in reference to the company’s founding.

In nixing the lawsuit at the pleading stage last year, U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton wrote, “The mere use of a geographic reference, including a reference to the company’s historical origin, does not convey a representation about a product’s current origin.”

But Ryu rejected Barilla’s claim that its packaging likewise invokes the company’s roots in a non-misleading way, ruling that the labels at issue in the King’s Hawaiian case “did not explicitly connect their origin to the present day. Nor did the labels exist against the backdrop of a long-standing marketing strategy expressly connected to a particular geographic location.”

Ryu’s ruling allows the case to move forward, absent a bid for injunctive relief because Sinatro and Prost cannot show they would be harmed in the future by Barilla’s alleged misrepresentations “now that they know where the products are manufactured.”

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