Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

Wegmans has been sued by two customers for violating quality rules for their vanilla ice cream products.

October 16, 2019

Cornell Community Reacts to Wegmans Being Sued for Vanilla Content in their Ice Cream

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Two customers are suing Wegmans for violating quality rules for their vanilla ice cream products. The plaintiffs argued that Wegmans misled customers into buying vanilla ice cream that supposedly contained little to no pure vanilla at all.

With Cornell’s own dairy bar known for its ice cream nationwide — and Wegmans’ status as a late-night student haunt — The Sun asked local industry experts to weigh in on the vanilla controversy.

Quincy Steele, a Pennsylvania resident, and Jimmy Arriola, of New York, filed a class action lawsuit against the major supermarket chain for “causing them to pay more than they would have” by mislabelling their products. They claim that the “natural flavor” indicated on the ingredient list on Wegmans ice cream does not contain as much pure vanilla as the front label suggests.

Cornell Dairy Plant Manager Tim Barnard said that the size and scope of Wegmans makes it tough for any mislabelling to get past the Food and Drug Administration.

“Wegmans is too big to be falsifying [amounts]. Any ice cream we make here, any nutritional label, everything that has to go on that ice cream or be available to the customer, has to be approved by New York State Ag and Markets,” Barnard told The Sun.

He added that even a minor misprint on the containers would require the producers to eliminate all mislabelled products, even if the content was fresh.

Barnard recalled a time when Cornell Dairy had to dispose of an entire batch of vanilla yogurt because “the manufacturer made a mistake … on the bottom it said ‘stir in fruit.’ So all those containers I had to throw away … because it was mislabelled.”

Prof. Bradley Wendel, law, stated this case is as “an incredibly common type of … class-action lawsuit [that] keeps companies honest and creates incentives not to engage in deception.”

Wendel referred to a similar lawsuit that went to the U.S. Supreme Court, Pom Wonderful LLC vs. Coca-Cola (2014), in which Coca-Cola was sued for falsely advertising  “Pomegranate Blueberry Flavored Blend of 5 Juices” when the juice was “overwhelmingly of apple and grape juices.”

The Supreme Court concluded that manufacturers can be sued over the content of their product labels under the Lanham Act, even if those labels comply with FDA regulations. The Lanham Act creates a cause of action for unfair competition based on false or misleading advertising, descriptions, or representations of any good.

“I don’t think this is exactly a bombshell lawsuit,” Wendel said. “But if in fact Wegmans should be clearer in its labeling, this may cause it to change. From the social point of view, that sounds like a good thing.”

Another expert, Cornell Dairy Foods Extension specialist Kimberly Bukowski, also weighed in on the vanilla controversy.

“Vanilla flavor comes from the vanilla bean and there are all different strengths of vanilla,” Bukowski saidin an email. “The quality of the vanilla also determines the price.”

Cornell gets its vanilla from Nielsen-Massey Vanillas, which has been making vanillas since 1907, and according to its website has “has built an enviable reputation for the quality and consistency of its pure vanillas.”

Unlike Wegmans’ vanilla ice cream products — which lists “natural flavors” among the ingredients — Cornell Dairy lists “pure vanilla” or “vanilla extract” in their Traditional Vanilla and French Vanilla ice cream, respectively.

The plaintiffs sued Wegmans largely because the chain did not list “pure vanilla” or “vanilla extract” in its list of ingredients like its competitive brands, and failed to label their products as vanilla “flavored” ice cream.”

“These trigger words are confusing purposely,” said Ryan Stasolla ’21, an interdisciplinary studies major studying food systems and social enterprise and purchasing co-ordinator for Anabel’s Grocery. “They are up to your own interpretation, it takes the blame off of the product, and instead asks for you to question your own beliefs.”

Wegmans, a family-owned company started in Rochester, has long relied on partnerships with food science experts in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in Ithaca and Geneva, according to the Cornell Chronicle.

Cornell’s Food Venture Center, based in Geneva has previously worked with Wegmans to ensure their vegetable-based foods “met the high-quality threshold they demand in their products without compromising safety.”

In the past, Wegmans funded $360,000 to CALS for a pilot training and development program for Cornell’s cheese makers, to increase the quality of New York made cheese.