Judge allows Conagra sustainable labeling lawsuit to proceed

Conagra is being sued for making sustainability claims on some of its seafood products
Conagra is being sued for making sustainability claims on some of its seafood products | Photo courtesy of Conagra
6 Min

A federal judge has allowed a class-action lawsuit to proceed that claims Conagras display of Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification on its seafood packages is deceptive.

U.S. District Judge Virginia M. Kendall ruled on 25 March 2024 that plaintiffs Abdallah Nasser and John Bohen can continue to pursue claims against Conagra but cannot be granted injunctive relief, which would have required the company to take immediate action to change the labeling on its seafood packaging.

Nasser and Bohen sued Conagra in March 2023 in the U.S. District Court of Illinois, contending Mrs. Paul’s and Van de Kamp’s pollock products include MSC’s eco-label, as well as the phrases “Certified Sustainable Seafood MSC” and Certified Sustainably Sourced,” but that the products were sourced from Russian fisheries that employ unsustainable practices. The plaintiffs are asking for USD 5 million (EUR 4.7 million) in damages.

Russian pollock fisheries do not have an effective measure in place to protect endangered species, such as Steller sea lions and albatross. Pollock trawl fisheries in the Bering Sea also frequently catch snow crab as bycatch, which they ultimately discard,” the lawsuit claims. Due to the use of pelagic trawls, these discarded crabs are estimated to have an 80 percent mortality rate. No reasonable consumer would believe the products to be sustainable if they knew of these fishing practices utilized in sourcing the products.”

Trawling practices also trap and kill a “significant number” of juvenile pollock, which prevents the establishment of a healthy pollock population, according to the complaint.

"Conagras pollock suppliers are also not required to mitigate ghost gear – abandoned or discarded fishing gear that creates safety hazards for marine animals,” the complaint said.

Contrary to Conagra’s claim that We have full traceability of all our fish,” its seafood products are not traceable as they don’t allow consumers to identify the origin of the product and sources of input materials, according to the suit.

Kendall’s ruling narrowed the scope of the lawsuit away from a debate about MSC’s standard and toward the company’s use of the phrase “Good for the Environment,” which she described as “problematic.”

“The line is featured prominently at the top of the back packaging and appears unconnected to the [MSC] Blue Tick or any MSC-related certification or standards. Indeed, a reasonable consumer could read the line as a separate purported commitment by Conagra, not by MSC, that their products are good for the environment,” Kendell said.

Conagra’s use of the MSC eco-label was not false advertising, Kendall wrote.

“Conagra is not advertising that their products are sustainable but that their products are certified as sustainable by MSC. This is a distinction with a difference,” she wrote.

Kendall clarified it was her understanding the plaintiffs were not alleging Conagra violated MSC standards or that the MSC certification on its packaging was inaccurate but, rather, that the MSC standard authorizes or overlooks unsustainable fishing practices. 

The suit also did not present enough of a case to suggest that Conagra cannot identify the origin of the pollock or track the history of the sourcing process, Kendall ruled.

“It could be that Conagra is aware of the unsustainable fishing practices and is trying to resolve the problem, or Conagra believes ...

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