Dannon heads to courts over 'fraud' probiotic claims

By Neil Merrett

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Nutrition

The US arm of Danone could be forced to make a multi-million dollar
refund to its customers over allegations that it has used
fraudulent health claims to sell some of its Activia and DanActive
branded yoghurts.

In a class action filed yesterday against the Dannon company in a California court, a legal team have accused the company of spending $100m promoting clinical benefits of products which the company's own testing disproves. Should the suit go against Dannon, which represents the interest of Danone in the US, the case could have considerable ramifications for the use of health claims on products, proving a major setback for burgeoning nutritional aids like probiotics. Both Dannon and parent company Danone were unwilling to comment on the allegations at the time of press, though added that they would be commenting on the civil action soon. Danon's website claims that the company has for over 10 years worked in with international research laboratories in developing its products. The case, which has been bought to court by the law firms Stoia Geller Rudman & Robbins and Mager & Goldstein, hopes to receive address for Dannon's customers, which it claims have been misled by the company's marketing. Attorney Timothy Blood, who will represent Coughlin Stoia Geller Rudman & Robbins in the action, said the dairy group had purposely deceived consumers about the products. "Deceptive advertising has enabled Dannon to sell hundreds of millions of dollars worth of ordinary yogurt at inflated prices to responsible, health conscious consumers,"​ he stated. The class action alleges therefore that claims on advertisements and labelling for Activia pronouncing that the product is "proven"​ to improve one's "intestinal rhythm"​ and "regulate your digestive system"​ are all unsubstantiated. On the back of these claims, the class action accuses Dannon of charging a premium of about 30 per cent on the Activia yoghurt. "In fact, Dannon's marketing for yogurts containing 'probiotics' led to one of the most successful product launches in recent food-industry history,"​ the group stated. The case action refers in particular to a $100m dollar promotional campaign by Dannon, which it alleges falsely promoted probiotic yoghurts that have earned it an estimated $428m in revenues since 2006. Despite these health claims, the civil action accuses Dannon of being aware that numerous scientific studies failed to support their claims on the advertised nutritional benefits. "A study conducted by leading microbiologists and funded by Dannon determined in 2006 that there was no conclusive evidence' of probiotics providing health benefits,"​ the action states. The report entitled Probiotic Microbes: The Scientific Basis was prepared by the American Academy of Microbiology. The allegations regarding Dannon's labelling on its yoghurts could be a major blow for other health claims regarding probiotics. Products aimed at improving digestion at set to drive the health and nutrition market for products over the coming year, according to Julian Mellentin, author of 10 Key Trends in Food, Nutrition & Health 2008. ​Mellentin claimes that probiotics will continue to be a force to be reckoned with as they focus on digestive health - which, Mellentin says, is the biggest segment of the functional foods market. The report says that in Europe probiotic dairy products account for the lion's share of functional food sales. The reason for this is digestive health is a "wellness​" issue, not like cholesterol-lowering or heart health which is a "death and disease​" issue.

Related topics: Regulation

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