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Those in in-house legal jobs are shaking in their boots as tobacco winner targets food manufacturers

Posted by: Laurence Simons 21/08/12

Don Barrett is coming and he is going to get you.

Are you bored of suing tobacco companies for fun and profit? Well, sue food companies instead.

That's what dangerously curvy clients are asking lawyers in America to do, as baffled chunksters sue food companies such as Cap'n Crunch for 'not having real fruit in their cereal' and Nutella for 'not being a healthy enough toast spread for children'. This is actually happening. We live in a world where two mothers sued a chocolate spread made of chocolate for not being healthy enough for kids.

But due to a quirk of packaging, this insanity is turning a healthy profit for those in private practice jobs. A consortium of lawyers, many of whom are veterans from the landmark Big Tobacco busts of over a decade ago, are aiming their sights squarely at food manufacturers and their labelling claims. And with major industry players such as Heinz, PepsiCo and General Mills all falling victim to suits filed on behalf of outraged and chunky mums, it could be a replay of the 1998 settlements that previously broke records.

Don Barrett is the man sitting in a room looking closely at the back of a packet of Nesquik or whatever, doing his best 'it's not frivolous' face while speaking to the New York Times. "It's a crime," he says, of mislabelled packaging that does not explicitly say 'don't give chocolate paste on toast to kids; they'll go alternatively fat and hyper'. "And that makes it a crime to sell it." He's heading up a consort of a dozen lawyers who are targeting 25 food manufacturers through California's federal courts, demanding damages to the tune of four years of sales, potentially amounting to billions of dollars.

Why California? Because consumer protection laws in the state tend to favour the plaintiff. And as a result, suing some yoghurt manufacturer or having a pop at Swiss Miss hot chocolate is a lucrative money-making opportunity there. And why Barrett? Because he is very good at it: despite only filing his first food suit in April of this year, he won hundreds of millions of dollars in the previous tobacco disputes, and hopes to draw on that experience to pull the same trick again.

"The food industry has realised that the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has no teeth," said Barrett, euphemising hugely. "You can't use euphemisms and you can't disguise ingredients by calling them something people can't understand." Basically, if you call sugar 'evaporated cane juice', Barrett's gonna get you.

What does it mean for those in legal careers? Well, there could be another landmark court case on the horizon, with bumper paydays aplenty. But for those working in in-house legal jobs for any big food corporation: put call screening on in case Don Barrett tries to get in touch.