Update, October 22, 2019: The lawyer who has brought this suit isn’t just suing Wegmans; he is going after every “natural flavoring” vanilla con artist he can find. According to Long Island’s Newsday, Spencer Sheehan, an attorney based out of Great Neck, New York, is being called “The Vanilla Vigilante.” He has has so far filed 27 lawsuits against companies such as Turkey Hill, Danone North America, and Voortman Cookies. In addition to fighting for our vanilla rights, he’s also tackling the rampant fake San Marzano tomatoes con and has already filed a suit against Cento.
Sheehan is also an animal rights activist that has represented some rather notable cases. In 2015 he represented famed subway vigilante Bernie Goetz in housing court after his landlords attempted to evict him for keeping a pet squirrel. He also represented a Florida woman who was under investigation by state authorities over the welfare of her six-foot long pet alligator Rambo, who she occasionally likes to dress up as Santa Claus.
Original story, October 11, 2019: Two men have brought a class action lawsuit against Wegmans after discovering their vanilla ice cream was engaging in one of the food industry’s greatest cons: natural flavorings.
Wegmans’ store brand vanilla ice cream says, right on the container, that it’s “made with milk, cream, and natural vanilla flavor,” and contains “no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.” And it’s true—it doesn’t. What the plaintiffs believed, though, was that “natural vanilla flavor” came from vanilla beans, when it doesn’t. In fact, natural flavorings oftentimes don’t come from the flavor they’re mimicking. All a flavoring needs to do to legally qualify as a natural flavor is to come from “natural sources.”
In the complaint that has been filed with the United States Attorney of the Southern District of New York, attorneys for the plaintiffs dissect the ingredients lists of several Wegmans’ store brand ice creams that contain natural flavors and colors, arguing the use of the these terms is deceptive to customers. For example, vanillin—the organic compound that gives vanilla beans their coveted flavor—can also be synthesized from other natural sources like, as the suit states, “wood pulp, coal tar, or plant fiber”.
Some other organic materials that can be synthesized into natural vanilla flavoring: corn, rice bran, cloves, and—my personal favorite—castoreum, which is derived from the anal gland secretions of beavers. (I’ll be explaining all about that one in the next installment of Ingredients Decoded.) The class action suit was filed on behalf of consumers in seven states; no judgment has yet been issued.