Iowa-made pasta sparks lawsuit over alleged ‘made in Italy’ marketing

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A pair of California consumers are suing the owners of Iowa-made Barilla pasta, claiming the company falsely suggests the products are made in Italy.

The federal lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, was filed in June in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California by plaintiffs Matthew Sinatro and Jessica Prost of California. They allege they purchased Barilla angel hair pasta and spaghetti last year believing it was made in Italy with “authentic” Italian ingredients.

They cite the slogan printed on boxes of Barilla products — “Italy’s No. 1 brand of pasta” — and the colors used on the packaging, which they say is patterned after Italy’s flag.

U.S. District Judge Donna M. Ryu ruled this week the lawsuit can proceed despite Barilla America’s motion for a dismissal.

The case is reminiscent of a lawsuit involving Templeton Rye, a product that was originally made in Templeton, Iowa, during Prohibition, but more recently was distilled and aged in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. Pursuant to a 2015 settlement in a class-action lawsuit that alleged deceptive marketing, the company agreed to add the words “distilled in Indiana” to the product’s label and remove any claims of the rye being based on a “Prohibition-era recipe.”

In their lawsuit against Barilla America, Prost and Sinatro claim the pasta they purchased was marketed as “authentic, genuine Italian pasta — made from ingredients and sources in Italy like durum wheat — and manufactured in Italy.”

Although Barilla has based its global headquarters in Parma, Italy, its North American headquarters are in Illinois, and it has factories in Ames, Iowa, and Avon, New York.

In court filings, the company argues that its slogan and packaging are used only to invoke the company’s “Italian roots through generalized representations of the brand,” and are not intended to suggest the products were manufactured in Italy. They note that their product boxes include the statement “Made in the USA.”

The plaintiffs’ claim for damages is based on the notion that Italian-made food products “hold a certain prestige” and are generally viewed as a higher quality product. “Consumers willingly pay more for Italian sounding and/or looking products,” the lawsuit claims. “Italian pasta is one of the best and most sought-after products in the global market.”

The claim “nothing on the products’ labeling or packaging would lead reasonable consumers to believe that the challenged representation — that the products are made in Italy, their ingredients are sourced in Italy, and the finished products are manufactured in Italy — is not true.”

The lawsuit alleges violations of the Unfair Competition Law of California; violations of the state’s False Advertising Law; violations of the state’s Consumers Legal Remedies Act; breach of warranty; and unjust enrichment.

In her ruling this week, Judge Ryu denied Barilla’s motion to block the plaintiffs’ efforts to win nationwide class-action status in their case, but did so on a very limited basis, noting that any decision on class-action status would “premature” at this point. The issue, she ruled, “is more properly addressed at the class certification stage” in the case.

As for whether Barilla’s packing is misleading, Ryu noted that the company wants the court to assume that consumers would only perceive the statements on the packaging to mean the products “are part of the Barilla brand, and not that they are made in Italy from Italian ingredients.” But the plaintiffs “plausibly allege” the statements on the packaging, when viewed in the context of the packaging’s colors and the company’s promotional efforts, “support a reasonable inference that the products were made in Italy from Italian ingredients,” Ryu ruled in denying a motion to dismiss the case.

Barilla argued that no reasonable consumer could be deceived, since all 54 of its products “are conspicuously marked ‘Made in the USA’ with the location of Barilla’s headquarters in Illinois.”

Ryu cited past cases in which judges have ruled that “reasonable consumers should not be expected to look beyond misleading representations on the front of the box to discover the truth … in small print on the side of the box.”

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