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Sugar war begins with false advertising hearing

The first step in a high-stakes battle with important ramifications for American consumers takes place on Sept. 13, 2011, in a Los Angeles federal courtroom.

The first step in a high-stakes battle with important ramifications for nutrition-minded American consumers takes place on Sept. 13, 2011, in a Los Angeles federal courtroom. A coalition of sugar farmers' cooperatives and other producers, including C&H Sugar Company, have accused the producers of High Fructose Corn Syrup of what amounts to food identity theft. Among the several defendants are the giant company Archer-Daniels-Midland, Cargill and the Corn Refiners Association.

The sugar farmers allege that the defendants have spent $50 million in a mass media rebranding campaign that misleads the consuming public by asserting that High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is natural and is indistinguishable from the sugar extracted from sugar cane and sugar beets. They are also asking the Food & Drug Administration to allow HFCS to be called "corn sugar" on food and beverage ingredient labels, even though "corn sugar" has for many decades been the commonly used name of a distinct corn starch product.

The defendants' current claims that theirs is a "natural" product equivalent to real sugar are demonstrably false. In 1997, as part of an effort to expand the production and consumption of HFCS in Mexico, the defendants themselves submitted affidavits attesting to the exactly opposite conclusion in order to support their claim that HFCS would not conflict with the Mexican sugar production. In these documents, the defendants admitted that, far from being natural, HFCS is an industrially manufactured chemical made by two molecular level transformations requiring advanced technology. In a supporting affidavit, the defendants told the Mexican government that "HFCS is a unique food ingredient which is the result of extensive scientific research and development."

The misleading marketing campaign claims that "sugar is sugar" and its implication that there are no differences between HFCS and real sugar is also belied by the defendants' past admissions that there are significant differences in chemistry, functionality, use and even human perception.

Confused consumers?

The lawsuit says the defendants' three-year, over $50 million rebranding marketing blitz to sell Americans the idea HFCS is really a "natural" product equivalent to real sugar, has misled, frustrated and confused consumers who are increasingly avoiding food and drinks containing it. Although many food and beverage makers have been replacing HFCS with real sugar in response to these consumer preferences, the plaintiffs allege that the corn refining industry's marketing campaign has artificially slowed the steady decline of HFCS sales and harmed the goodwill of real sugar.

"This suit is about false advertising, pure and simple," said Inder Mathur, president and CEO of Western Sugar Cooperative. "If consumers are concerned about your product, then you should improve it or explain its benefits, not try to deceive people about its name or distort scientific facts."

The complaint states "Defendants' resort to such literally false and misleading statements harms consumers, harms the makers of real sugar and harms any dialogue based on the truth. This lawsuit seeks to put an end to the deception."

A hearing on the defendants' motion to dismiss the suit will take place in the federal courtroom of Judge Consuelo Marshall, 255 East Temple Street (Roybal Building) at 9 a.m. on Sept. 13, 2011.

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