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Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Packaged food distributor faces consumer class action over industrial additive in seafood products

The consumers say a preservative in some Conagra frozen fish products may increase the products' weight by 13% or more and affect the quality of the fish.

CHICAGO (CN) — Three seafood consumers filed a federal class action against Conagra Brands in Chicago on Tuesday, accusing the Fortune 500 company of "short weighting" its frozen fish products.

The three plaintiffs from California, New York and Massachusetts claim that despite the Chicago-based company marketing its Van de Kamp's and Mrs. Paul's fish products as healthy, environmentally conscious and "100% whole fish," those products are actually stuffed to the gills with excess water and a chemical known as sodium tripolyphosphate.

"Defendant claims that its popular Van de Kamp and Ms. Paul’s brand frozen fish products are '100% Whole Fish.' That statement is false," the plaintiffs wrote in their 25-page complaint. "The truth is, defendant pumps up those fish with an industrial filler called sodium tripolyphosphate and extra water to artificially add weight, which may then ooze out as a white goo when the fish is cooked."

Sodium tripolyphosphate is a commercial compound with a variety of uses. It can be found in detergents and water softeners, and is listed as a pesticide by the University of California's Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

It is also commonly used as a preservative for fish and meat, helping the flesh retain moisture and firmness. It is generally considered safe for human consumption in small amounts by the FDA and European Food Safety Authority, though a 2019 study by the authority found that in high quantities chemicals of its type may have adverse effects on kidney health.

The plaintiffs who filed the class action Tuesday also claim that sodium tripolyphosphate is a suspected neurotoxin. Courthouse News saw the same claim repeated on several healthy eating and consumer advisory websites, but could not find any scientific source corroborating it.

Health effects aside, the plaintiffs claim that Conagra is filling its frozen fish with an exorbitant amount of the chemical — enough that sodium tripolyphosphate solutions may add 13% or more weight to the products. When cooked, the plaintiffs claim, the solution can ruin the fish's quality.

"Not only do consumers end up paying more money for STPP- treated seafood because of the added water weight, but the seafood decreases in size and changes in texture when the water is cooked out. Excessive STPP treatment destroys the quality of the protein during the cooking process and can create a 'soapy' flavor and mushy texture."

The frozen products oversaturated with industrial additive, the plaintiffs claim, include fish sticks, breaded haddock fillets and beer battered fillets. These products' packaging acknowledge that sodium tripolyphosphate is added to the fish to retain moisture, but only in the fine print.

The company's claim of using "100% whole fish," meanwhile, is prominently displayed on the front of the box and accompanied by equally-large proclamations that the fish is "good for you," "good for the environment" and "wild caught."

This disparity, the plaintiffs claimed, is intentionally misleading.

"A reasonable consumer has no reason to check what a product is 'composed' of when the product labeling is replete with representations that it is '100% Whole Fish,' healthy, and caught in the wild. Any consumer would reasonably assume without having to check parentheticals in the ingredient list that the products contain 100% Whole Fish, and not some fish and STPP and water pumped into the products in a processing plant," the three plaintiffs argued.

The trio now seeks injunctive relief against the company, as well as over $5 million in damages for their proposed class. Their complaint outlines nine counts for fraud, unjust enrichment, breach of warranty and several violations of California, New York and Massachusetts state law.

Conagra did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the litigation.

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Categories / Consumers, Courts, Health

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