Idiots Sue Italian Company Selling in USA for Manufacturing in USA

Another frivolous suit making a mockery of the American tort system.

NPR (“2 Californians bought Barilla pasta thinking it was made in Italy. Now they’re suing.”):

What would it be like to live in a world where everything that was printed in an ad or said in a commercial were true, without you having to read the fine print?

It seems that’s the world that Matthew Sinatro and Jessica Prost are seeking to build — at least when it comes to spaghetti.

The two are behind a class action lawsuit against the pasta-making company Barilla, which they say is deliberately deceiving shoppers by using the slogan “Italy’s #1 Brand of Pasta” on its packaging.

Despite the green, white and red stylized Italian flags displayed on the blue boxes of angel hair, fusilli and bowtie pastas, a complaint filed in Northern California notes that the majority of the company’s products sold in the U.S. are produced in Iowa and New York and are not made with ingredients sourced from Italy.

The company was founded by Pietro Barilla in 1877 in Parma, Italy. It is the “biggest pasta producer in the world” and constitutes nearly 45% of the Italian market for pasta. So, its claim is not mere puffery; it’s factually correct.

It is decidedly not a claim that the product is produced in Italy. Indeed, most global brands have manufacturing facilities in multiple countries or have long since sourced their parts from overseas.

So, for example, BMW and Mercedes are fine German automobiles. Many of their most popular models for sale in the United States are made in here. Conversely, there’s not a more classic American brand than Coca-Cola; it has bottling plants all over the world.

Sinatro and Prost argue in their complaint that they were duped by the company’s alleged “false advertising” and deceptive marketing practices and that they would not have spent a combined total of $6 on Barilla products had they known the pastas they were taking home were made in the United States. Instead, they would have opted for cheaper alternatives.

So . . . these idiots bought six dollars worth of pasta, total, and are claiming harm? It’s clearly bullshit. Indeed, they almost certainly bought the pasta with the intent of filing this absurd suit.

“[C]onsumers willingly pay more for Italian sounding and/or looking products,” and Barilla leveraged the implied connection to Italy “[i]n an effort to increase profits and to obtain an unfair competitive advantage,” the complaint states.

Again, Barilla made no claim whatsoever that its product is made in Italy. Indeed, I happen to have two boxes of Barilla lasagne. And, you know what? Everything on the box is written in English! Including the Net Wt. 1 LB (454 g). Do these dolts think Italians print their packages in English?

Conversely, my package of De Cecco Thin Spaghetti no. 11 (it was an accidental purchase; it must have been mixed in with the bucatini) says MADE IN ITALY on the box. Which, in all candor, I never noticed until I checked just now. (In fairness, aside from “dal 1886” and “METODO DE CECCO,” everything else on the box, including MADE IN ITALY, is written in English.)

My box of San Giorgio Angel Hair No. 12 (also almost surely an accidental purchase, as I much prefer a denser long pasta) makes no mention of Italy at all. But San Giorgio sure sounds Italian to me!

Barilla did not respond to NPR’s requests for comment, but the company does address the issue on its website.

“Barilla Pasta that is sold in the United States is made in our plants in Ames, IA and Avon, NY, with a few exceptions. Barilla Tortellini and Barilla Oven Ready Lasagne are made in Italy,” the website states.

The site also notes that the recipes used in the U.S. are the same as those used in Parma, Italy, and that the pastas are made by the same types of machines. The company’s 2021 financial report states that the U.S. “continues to represent the most important market in the [Americas] region.”

Court documents show that Barilla filed to get the case dismissed, arguing that Sinatro and Prost couldn’t prove that they suffered financial harm. Sinatro, who lives in San Francisco, purchased one box of angel hair pasta for about $2, while Prost bought two boxes of spaghetti for approximately $2 each at a grocery store in Los Angeles, according to the complaint.

The company moved to dismiss the case in August, but a judge rejected the request last week.

I scanned through the ruling by Magistrate Judge Donna Ryu and my lay takeaway is simply that it’s incredibly hard to meet the burden for summary judgment. Barilla’s claims—that 1) the “Italy’s #1 Brand of Pasta” is a Federally-approved trademark; 2) plaintiffs suffered no harm, in that their pasta does not command a premium price; and 3) in any case, knowing now that the pasta is made in the USA precludes their being deceived in the future; and 4) $6 does not meet the threshold to file a Federal lawsuit strike me as imminently reasonable. The precedents with regard to 3 and 4 are particularly absurd.

Consumers ought to be able to sue for genuine harm caused by misleading claims made by sellers. Here, though, there was zero harm and zero misrepresentation. This is just a mockery of the tort system.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. HelloWorld! says:

    DeCecco is way better than Barilla anyway. My dad was born in Napoli so I know where the pasta is made is as important as where the water comes from if you want a good NY pizza.

    3
  2. Jon says:

    @HelloWorld!: Yah, DeCecco is hands down better.

    1
  3. Beth says:

    Personal hill I like to die on:

    There is no such thing as a “tort system”. Except in very discrete cases like the vaccine court, all torts are handled in the same general courts. “Tort system” is just a right wing boogy man pushed by large corporations and insurance companies that don’t want to pay for their actual malfeasance.

    12
  4. Jen says:

    @HelloWorld!: Was going to make this very comment.

    I make pasta when I need long, flat noodles (lasagna, fettuccine, etc. Watching Pasta Grannies will do that to you). When I buy it, it’s for shapes that I don’t have equipment for, like rigatoni, and I always get DeCecco.

    Barilla sticks in my mind as anti-gay.

    3
  5. Kathy says:

    Basically all pasta is pretty much the same, regardless of where it’s made. Most of it is wheat and water, cooked and extruded into shapes. aside from variations like whole wheat, or with added ingredients like egg or vegetables, there’s no discernible difference.

    Shapes matter, though. Some get more sauce to stick to them, some are better in soup, some make better dry pasta, etc.

    BTW, my Japanese Toyota was made in Canada and sold in Mexico. that’s Transpacific North American miscegenation or something.

    3
  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Consumers ought to be able to sue for genuine harm caused by misleading claims made by sellers. Here, though, there was zero harm and zero misrepresentation. This is just a mockery of the tort system.

    But but but James, what about their fee fees?

    1
  7. MarkedMan says:

    @Kathy: I was thinking the same thing. It would be interesting to have a blind taste test.

    1
  8. Kathy says:

    Can I sue if I find out that a Mars candy bar was made on Earth?

    17
  9. James Joyner says:

    @Beth: I’m aware that most torts are handled in general courts. I don’t mean anything nefarious by calling our process for handing them a “system” (“a set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network”).It’s just that our process makes it too easy to bring frivolous cases like this.

    @HelloWorld! and @Jon: I’ve heard lots of people say that but tend to side with @Kathy that I find brands of boxed spaghetti/rigatoni/lasagna/whatever pretty close to indistinguishable between the reputable brands. Because there are like 900 shapes of pasta and most of the local supermarkets carry at least three national brands plus their store brand, most of the time I just buy whatever lasagna, bucatini, or short pasta I’m trying to find that’s actually in stock.

    2
  10. gVOR08 says:

    @James Joyner: Off topic, but wrt/ “system”, references to our “healthcare system” are a pet peeve of mine. “System” implies some level of design and coordinated action. The multitudinous elements of healthcare in this country are a collection, not a system.

    4
  11. Joe says:

    I was traveled in Spain, which has miles and miles of olive trees. We were told by our guide – clearly a Spain cheerleader – that Spain makes the most olive oil in the world, but, he noted, most of us were not aware of Spanish olive oil because a significant amount of it is bought in bulk by Italian companies, processed in Italy and marketed as Italian olive oil that we have all heard of. Will those Italians stop at nothing in their ongoing marketing deceptions!

    2
  12. Stormy Dragon says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Counter point, there’s a growing problem with factory farms intentionally mislabelling their products as following various animal welfare practices (eg crating chickens but then claiming they are free range) and part if why they can do this is courts ruling that even though it’s deliberate fraud, there’s no “economic cost” to the consumer of having their morals violated

    2
  13. daryl and his brother darryl says:

    I do enjoy the Barilla Cheese Tortellini.

    1
  14. just nutha says:

    You Inglesi are so chi chi about stuff. Pasta is pasta, you put sauce on it and shove it in your mouth. Simple. Buy what you want, but if you’re paying $2 a box, you’re being overcharged.

    Barilla is allowing these guys to sue them for the free advertising. Everybody and the horse they rode in on knows this suit is frivolous and that Barilla could have just given them their 6 dollars back. Eventually, they will, but free publicity? Soooo into that.

    1
  15. grumpy realist says:

    @James Joyner: I suspect that if there were a further gateway requirement for tort cases people would quickly start complaining about other cases which weren’t allowed to progress further.

    As it is, if there is no issue of fact or law, the other side can get this case thrown out for being frivolous. Also the court can chastise the representing attorney under Rule 11.

    1
  16. daryl and his brother darryl says:

    @Joe:
    Cabot got in trouble for this a while back.
    Because they are a cooperative they were getting some milk from neighboring NY, but still marketing themselves as VT cheese. A minor point…but I think they ended up changing some labelling.

  17. just nutha says:

    @daryl and his brother darryl: I find dry tortellini a little gluey, but I almost never eat tortellini anyway except at a restaurant. It’s one of my “go to a restaurant to eat things I don’t make at home” choices. But with only me, I don’t eat much Italian anyway.

  18. Kathy says:

    @MarkedMan:

    One time we got samples of pasta “enriched” with spirulina. The shapes were dark green. Many at the office were curious what they tasted like. I took some and cooked them with some sauce, and shared the dish at the office. They tasted exactly as regular pasta.

    There are some brands that add vegetables, so the pasta comes out light green, orange, or red. They don’t taste much like the vegetables they have added, but by themselves they don’t taste like regular pasta. There’s some faint difference.

    I’ve never bothered to make any. If I did, I’d try a lighter sauce, like just olive oil and a little garlic. I don’t know if the result would be good, but if you’re paying extra for some flavor, then there’s no sense in drowning it with tomato sauce.

    Though the added nutrients will be there regardless of how it tastes.

  19. Skookum says:

    @Jen: I thought of the anti-gay stance, too. Didn’t buy Barilla for quite awhile. Sometimes have to in my small grocery store.

    1
  20. Jay L Gischer says:

    You know, I heard of, and mocked, for years the woman who sued McDonalds when she spilled coffee on herself and got burns.

    And then, eventually, I heard that she sued because most establishments serve drinks at a temperature 30 degrees lower than McD’s did. (They used maybe 180 degrees versus 150? I don’t recall the details.) When questioned in court, McDonalds could offer no concrete reason for the temperature they used. So there was a lot more substance in that suit than I first knew about.

    This experience has made me cautious. Yes, given what we’ve been told, it seems a stupid place to start to get more truth in advertising. Is there more to this, though?

    3
  21. just nutha says:

    @Kathy: Last time I looked, the added nutrition factor of tricolor pasta was negligible.

  22. grumpy realist says:

    @Jay L Gischer: The other point which was brought out during discover was that McDonalds had already had quite a few complaints of burns due to the heat of their coffee, and they hadn’t done anything about lowering the temperature.

    (McDonald’s supposed reason to have the coffee so hot was for the flavour, IIRC).

    When your coffee gives people 2nd degree burns don’t be surprised about lawsuits.

    2
  23. Mister Bluster says:

    @Jay L Gischer:..details

    I had learned about this lawsuit years ago. Well before Google. I think that I heard something on the radio like “she wasn’t driving” and “there were many complaints about customers burned by McDonald’s coffee before this”. I believe that I went to the library to dig up the facts of the case.
    Today I can do a search “McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit” and get 962,000 results in 0.55 seconds.
    The internet is a wonderful thing!

    1
  24. JohnMc says:

    @Jay L Gischer: Probably someone will link to the full story but McD’s was at fault several ways — begins w a coffee maker broken thar kept the coffee actually boiling — and that lady suffered some serious injuries.

    1
  25. Kathy says:

    @just nutha:

    Are you implying color is not a nutrient now?

  26. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Jay L Gischer: She also had 3rd degree burns, so real pain and suffering.

    1
  27. James Joyner says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    Yes, given what we’ve been told, it seems a stupid place to start to get more truth in advertising. Is there more to this, though?

    I haven’t examined the suit in full but the facts comport with what was laid out in the case. It’s literally $6 worth of pasta that never represented itself as being manufactured in Italy and which is, in any case, identical to what the manufacturer sells in Italy.

  28. Mister Bluster says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:..real pain and suffering

    Also skin grafts in very delicate areas.

    1
  29. gVOR08 says:

    @Mister Bluster: On McD’s coffee, I recall reading years ago that besides real negligence and real injury, McD didn’t take it very seriously and sent a couple of kid lawyers whose arrogance pissed off everyone involved.

  30. Jay L Gischer says:

    @James Joyner: That wasn’t aimed at you, James. I’m just a super skeptical guy, and I have a certain distrust of this sort of story.

    @Mister Bluster: Yes, the internet IS a wonderful thing.

  31. EddieInCA says:

    More than anything, this is an indictment of the “tort” or legal system. The fact that the people who do this face no repercussions from the system for filing such a frivolous bullshit suit makes it likely we will continue to see more of these sorts of cases. It also explains why certain simple legal cases (see Trump tax returns) take 6+ years to work their way through the system.

    1
  32. SKI says:

    @HelloWorld!:

    as important as where the water comes from if you want a good NY pizza.

    Yeah, that isn’t true: https://www.seriouseats.com/does-nyc-water-make-a-difference-in-pizza-quality

  33. Gustopher says:

    There is a brand of fake Mayonnaise, calling itself “Just Mayonnaise”, which has a silhouette of an egg on the package.

    There is no egg used, it’s some vegan shit.

    Those people deserve to be sued into oblivion.

    1
  34. just nutha says:

    @Kathy: Whether color is a nutrient or not is beyond the scope of my knowledge of organic chemistry and biology. I only go by the “nutrition information” label.

    1
  35. de stijl says:

    I have driven by the Barilla plant outside of Ames, Iowa a few hundred times.

    It’s a huge complex of big, tall concrete buildings.

    It’s industrially impressive and about 600 yards to the east of I-35. You can’t miss it.

    20 miles down the road in Ankeny is the production / packing facility for Tone’s spices.

    I don’t mind Barilla – it is my go to for Penne and Elbow Macaroni which are the pastas that I use most often in my eating life. It’s perfectly acceptable.

  36. Ol' Nat says:

    Thank you for the laugh! I needed it after this week!

  37. Ol' Nat says:

    This pasta is soooooo good, and made in San Francisco, not Italy. If you were concerned.
    https://www.difoods.com/