Consumer Law

Long Island, New York, lawyer Spencer Sheehan wants consumers to know that they are sometimes being deceived by the “vanilla” label on the products that they buy.

Sheehan has filed nearly 100 pending lawsuits in four states on behalf of consumers who say they bought products with the vanilla label, even though the flavor doesn’t come exclusively from vanilla beans, Inside Edition reports.

Many products make the false claim, Sheehan asserts.

“We’re talking yogurt, milk, dairy, ice cream, tea,” he told Inside Edition.

Vanilla isn’t grown in the United States, and it’s expensive. It comes mostly from Madagascar and is made from the pods of orchids, according to Bloomberg Law.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has set a “standard of identity” that provides what ingredients must be in a food or a drink that calls itself vanilla. According to one of Sheehan’s ice cream lawsuits cited by Bloomberg Law, the product should be flavored only with vanilla extract, vanilla concentrate or vanilla beans.

Wegmans Food Markets, a maker of ice cream, argued that private plaintiffs can’t enforce the federal law, and violations of the law don’t amount to deceptive practices. U.S. District Judge Louis Stanton of the Southern District of New York ruled for Wegmans in July, saying its labeling wasn’t misleading.

“Evidently, there are various natural substances which have a vanilla flavor,” Stanton wrote. “Those interested in the actual ingredients can read the list, which mentions neither vanilla beans nor extracts.”

Sheehan settled a different federal case in Manhattan, New York, against Califia Farms, Inside Edition reports. The settlement provided for consumer refunds in an amount up to $3 million. Six lead plaintiffs in the class action each received $5,000 as incentive awards, and the plaintiffs’ counsel received $750,000 in fees and reimbursements. Califia Farms did not admit liability.

At least 10 other lawsuits settled privately, according to Inside Edition.