Our health and well-being keeps us up and ready to do things and enjoy life. To maintain it, experts suggest that we take enough rest, be physically active, and maintain a proper diet. For many of us, the last task is perhaps the most challenging and excruciating thing to go through. We have to manually check what's in our food, be extra picky in shopping or buying ready-made meals, or maybe even prepare our own dishes. Whichever that may be, one thing is for sure -- companies must work hand-in-hand with their consumers because this is a team effort. The big businesses do all the toiling and farming for you while you work on improving your self-discipline to choose which product is best for you.
Indeed, we should all be mindful of what we put inside our bodies. This is especially true if you're allergic to nuts or dairy products. If you consume something that is harmful to your body, you're bound to be in a world of trouble. Unfortunately, some companies do make mistakes -- intentional or not -- and mislabel food products. That is why California enacted Health & Safety Code 11487. It aims to protect the safety and rights of consumers by making it illegal to mislead or misinform the consumer.
For an act to be prosecutable under this law, the following elements must be present:
- The product was advertised or presented for human consumption;
- The information detailing the ingredients or production of the product is false or misleading; and
- It was either deliberate or criminal negligence.
In other words, mislabeling a food product can occur when a food product label does not accurately reflect its ingredients. This may be intentional or unintentional. If it's the former, we hear the terminology “food fraud” where companies deliberately try to capitalize on putting something in the ingredient that's inaccurately listed on the label. However, this also may be unintentional, for example, a company that either experienced a quality control failing or was simply uninformed about the governing regulations and did something wrong.
Examples of food mislabeling are:
- Disguising an ingredient to another, less commonly known term;
- Cross-contamination wherein an allergenic product comes into contact with an ingredient that is not included in the label;
- Failure to warn risks associated with the food product;
- False information regarding the nutritional content of the food;
- Misinformation about the standard, grade, or quality of the product;
- A food label that is too difficult to read (mostly due to poor layout); and/or
- Incorrect expiration dates.
California is a state that advocates for the honest presentation of food, be it in menus, labels, or advertisements. With that said, a lawsuit under this law often comes together with false advertisement. Do you remember seeing pictures of “expectation versus reality” with McDonald's burgers? Such a case belongs in the false advertisement issue rather than the mislabeling of food, unless if the fast-food chain lists the patty as a pork product when it's actually made of beef.
Penalties for Mislabeling of Food Products
A violation under California Health and Safety Code 114087 is a misdemeanor offense, which is not quite what you would expect considering how dangerous it can potentially be. As stated in this provision, the penalties are:
- Misdemeanor probation;
- Not more than 6 months in county jail; and/or
- A fine of not less than $25 but not exceeding $1,000.
You may pursue a more severe lawsuit against the company or individual if their actions caused major consequences to the quality of your life. It is best to hire an aggressive California attorney to represent you and fight for your case.
Legal Defenses for Food Mislabeling
There may be cases where you, as a manufacturer of a food product, made an honest mistake while making the food label. If you do, and you're already facing a lawsuit for this, the smartest thing you can do is reach out to a criminal defense attorney as soon as you can. This is to prevent any further damage to your business and preserve public relations with your consumers. Furthermore, they may also negotiate for a better deal if you are convicted guilty otherwise.
Still, a legal defense that you may use to challenge a food mislabeling charge is it was an accident. Now, the strength of this defense depends highly on the facts of your case (i.e., if this is not the first time you've been accused of food mislabeling, the legal defense of accident may not work favorably). Nevertheless, remember that you can only be punished if you acted out of criminal intent or negligence.
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