US judge narrows Walmart false labeling claims lawsuit involving MSC logo

Marine Stewardship Council eco-label on Walmart seafood products
Marine Stewardship Council eco-label on Walmart seafood products
6 Min

A U.S. judge has narrowed a class-action lawsuit alleging Walmart made misleading seafood sustainability marketing claims.

U.S. District Judge Manish S. Shah granted a motion in part made by Walmart to dismiss the suit, which was filed in March 2023 in the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Illinois.

In the suit, U.S. consumer Marissa Sanchez claimed that Walmart’s Great Value and Sam’s Choice frozen seafood products that included the Marine Stewardship Council blue checkmark contained deceptive and misleading marketing claims. Sanchez also alleged Walmarts suppliers lack the transparency and traceability necessary to support its claim of sustainability.

According to the complaint, the fisheries supplying Walmart with seafood use unsustainable practices and large-scale fishing methods such as pots and traps, purse-seines, gillnets, pelagic trawls, bottom trawls, and longlines that contribute to overfishing, and observers used by Walmarts MSC-certified suppliers fail to adequately report and record bycatch and other dangers or harms to marine wildlife.

Specifically, Sanchez called out three Great Value brand seafood products: Pink Salmon Fillets, Frozen Pacific Cod, and Breaded Fish Sticks. The front labels of all three products include a Blue Tick” certification from the Marine Stewardship Council accompanied with the text Certified Sustainable Seafood MSC” and a URL linking to MSC’s website.

With consumers willing to pay a premium price for sustainable seafood products, Walmart receives “great financial benefit” when it sells products touted as certified sustainable seafood” and bearing the MSC label, according to the complaint.

”However, no reasonable consumer would consider such products to be ‘certified sustainable seafood’ if they knew that the seafood in question was obtained using the fishing practices detailed herein or that the fishing practices employed to obtain such seafood were in violation of the certifiers own standards,” the complaint said.

In his 13 May order, Shah dismissed Sanchez’s claims regarding products she did not buy for lack of standing. Shah also dismissed claims brought under the Unfair Deceptive Trade Practices Act, ruling the suit’s allegations only showed Walmart’s labeling statements were potentially misleading and did not demonstrate how they would harm consumers in the future.

“Plaintiff does not sufficiently plead that the MSC Blue Tick or Walmarts ‘sustainability commitment’ constitute deceptive conduct. But, statements attributed to Walmart, including one made on the front label of its Breaded Fish Sticks that included the phrase, 'Sustainably Sourced – 100% – Sustainability,' placed separately from the Blue Tick, could qualify as a deceptive statement," Shah said.

Shah also narrowed claims under the Illinois Consumer Fraud Act and for unjust enrichment, with the latter category contingent upon Sanchez proving her claims under the former. To prove that claim, Sanchez must plausibly allege a deceptive act or practice committed by Walmart; that consumers relied on the deception to make purchases; and actual sales completed as a result of the deception.

“While a reasonable consumer may not understand the granular details of various fishing practices, plaintiff sufficiently alleges that a reasonable consumer would expect seafood labeled as sustainable to be sourced from fisheries that use practices that avoid long-term depletion,” Shah said in the order. “[Sanchez’s] assertion that she and others attach importance to the size of a package is enough for now to indicate that a ‘reasonable consumer’ does so, too.”

Shah ruled the Blue Tick logo signifies only that the product meets MSC’s sustainability standards, “so it is not actionable as a ...

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