Barilla pasta claim of Italian origin is false advertising, lawsuit alleges

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Two boxes of $2 pasta have led to a possible class-action lawsuit that could cost Barilla millions of dollars, according to legal experts.

A pair of pasta buyers, Matthew Sinatro and Jessica Prost, sued the company, claiming they believed the pasta was made in Italy. The boxes are marked with “Italy’s #1 Pasta Brand” and logos depicting the colors of the Italian flag. But the pasta is made in Iowa and New York.

Sinatro and Prost claim they would not have bought the pasta if they had known it was not made in Italy, which is valued not only for creating pasta but also for having the protein-rich durum wheat needed to make a quality product.

U.S. District Judge Donna Ryu ruled Monday that the case has enough merit to proceed. “Their allegations are sufficient to establish an economic injury for constitutional standing,” Ryu wrote.

Barilla is based in Illinois but started as a shop selling bread and pasta in Parma, Italy. The Iowa and New York plants use ingredients from countries other than Italy, according to court documents.

The California law firm that filed the lawsuit did not immediately respond to The Washington Post’s request for comment.

A Barilla spokesperson said Friday that the claims are unfounded, pointing to wording on the package that says the pasta is made in the United States with ingredients from the United States and elsewhere. “We are very proud of the brand’s Italian heritage, the company’s Italian know-how and the quality of our pasta in the US and globally,” according to the statement.

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Many modern consumers assume they are being misled or manipulated by companies, according to some law professors who study false advertising.

Rebecca Tushnet, a professor at Harvard Law School, said people feel cheated when they pay a price premium for what they consider a special product, such as chocolate from Switzerland.

She said consumers have continually filed false advertising lawsuits against companies that sell products in grocery stores because it’s one of the last forums in society that isn’t bogged down by legal forms or contracts where consumers sign away their right to sue. So, Tushnet said, this pent-up frustration at being manipulated by corporations is expressed in your local Aisle 5.

Tushnet said she understands that some people think these costumes are silly, because they hardly expect to buy something made 6,000 miles away for $2. “Part of it is a matter of common sense,” she said.

But how do you quantify common sense when millions of dollars are at stake?

Tushnet said there has been an increase in the past five or so years of plaintiffs and defendants in false advertising cases conducting public inquiries that speak to the case’s issues.

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Megan Bannigan, a partner at Debevoise and Plimpton who has tried intellectual property cases, said investigations have come a long way and are a useful tool in false advertising matters.

When Bannigan started 15 years ago, she said, they would set up shop in a shopping center and try to pull 400 people into a room to ask them questions like where they think a product comes from and whether they would be surprised that find out the true origin of the product.

She said it has become much cheaper and more efficient to run online surveys, but they can still cost between $20,000 and $100,000. But that’s only a fraction of the cost in this type of case, which can take millions of dollars to calculate.

Bannigan said she could see either or both sides of the Barilla lawsuit conducting investigations, as there appears to be a legitimate legal issue.

“I don’t see the claim as mere puffery,” she said.

Gregory Klass, a law professor at Georgetown University, said false advertising laws date back to the 1800s.

“There’s a long tradition of people caring about where their food and other products come from, so it’s not surprising to see lawsuits like this,” he said.

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Klass pointed to the well-known example of exclusive naming rights associated with sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France.

As for the pasta made in Iowa and New York, he said the real question is how important it is to consumers if the packaging is misleading.

Alexandra J. Roberts, a law professor at Northeastern University in Boston, said some consumers are upset because Florida Natural Orange Juice now also uses Mexican oranges.

Florida’s citrus industry is known for its quality and consistency, so, she said, consumers are fine with paying more because the name on the box says it all.

The first point on the FAQ page for Florida’s Natural explains why it does not use only Florida oranges: “The orange harvest from Florida can no longer meet our consumer needs, so we only add the best Mexican orange juice from Valencia. This allows us to continue to deliver enough orange juice for consumers’ increasing thirst while maintaining the superior taste they love from Florida’s Natural.”

Although the product’s FAQ section on Barilla’s website does not address where the pasta is made, the spokesperson pointed to another section of the website that explains why the pasta is not made in Italy.

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