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Walmart on hook over claims of heavy metals in spices

Heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium and lead have been found in a third of herbs and spices 



SAN FRANCISCO (CN)—A federal judge advanced claims that some products in Walmart's Great Value line of spices may contain toxic heavy metals, and that the retail giant failed to warn customers of those metals and potential health risks.

Plaintiffs Susan Gagetta and Traice Gomez say in a class action filed this past June that Walmart failed to tell customers that certain herbs and spices in its Great Value line including basil, chili powder, ground cumin and organic paprika and ginger, may contain lead, arsenic and cadmium. Both plaintiffs are Walmart customers living in California. 

They cited a November 2021 report “Your Herbs and Spices Might Contain Arsenic, Cadmium, and Lead” from Consumer Reports, which analyzed 126 individual products from national and private-label brands, including Walmart’s Great Value, and determined a third of the tested products had high enough levels of arsenic, lead, and cadmium combined, on average, “to pose a health concern for children and adults when regularly consumed in typical serving sizes.”

Heavy metals in foods can cause cancer and serious, possibly irreversible damage to brain development along with other serious health issues. Exposure to lead may cause anemia, weakness and kidney and brain damage, which affect almost every organ and system and accumulates in the body over time. Arsenic can cause bladder, lung, liver and skin cancer, as well as strokes and diabetes. 

The plaintiffs say Walmart knew customers would be unwilling to purchase, or would pay less for, these products if they knew that they contained toxic heavy metals, and “intentionally and knowingly concealed this fact from customers” by not disclosing the presence or risk of toxic metals on product labels.

"No reasonable consumer would know, or have reason to know, that the products contain (or risk containing) heavy metals," the plaintiffs say in their complaint. "Worse, as companies across the industry have adopted methods to limit heavy metals in their herbs and spices, defendant has stood idly by with a reckless disregard for its consumers’ health and well-being."

They seek a trial and a court order barring Walmart from selling and marketing products with misleading label- ing, and requiring the company to disclose that products contain heavy metals and notify everyone who pur- chased those products of the pending class action.

In a motion to dismiss, Walmart said the putative class relies on "false information debunked by judicially notice- able, science-based facts published by federal agencies in charge of overseeing this nation’s food supply." The company cited statements by the Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture that natur- ally occurring arsenic, cadmium and lead are "ubiquitous" in the food supply no matter how an agricultural product is cultivated, and cannot be avoided. 

Walmart also said that the plaintiffs failed to state a claim because they have not alleged any physical econo- mic injury from purchasing Great Value herbs and spices and do not say with certainty that those products contained heavy metals.

In a ruling late Wednesday, US District Judge William Orrick III tossed implied warranty claims for failure to state a claim but found the main question of the case—whether the products contained a dangerous level of metals —cannot be decided at this stage in the proceedings and must advance. 

Orrick found the plaintiffs have put forth an adequate theory of injury for most of their causes of action due to risk, because they would have not have purchased the products if they had known about any contamination and because Walmart does not contest that its products probably contain heavy metals. He added that it is "a hotly contested issue of fact" on whether any level of the metals is safe, making it inappropriate to resolve in a motion to dismiss. 

However, Orrick agreed with Walmart that the plaintiffs failed to show the company breached the implied war- ranty under the Song-Beverly Act—requiring that products are fit for the purposes they are used for—because they do not show the products "were without the most basic degree of fitness" or "failed to perform their most basic function of flavoring or seasoning."


He gave the plaintiffs until Jan. 9 to file an amended complaint. Attorneys for the plaintiffs and Walmart did not respond to requests for comment before deadline.

Spice giant McCormick faces a similar putative class action, also filed in San Francisco federal court this past January.

Rep. Ilhan Omar introduces bill creating Advisory Council on Unpaid Meal Debt

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-MN, has introduced the National Advisory Council on Unpaid Meal Debt Act, to establish a commission to address unpaid school meal debt in child nutrition programs.


The National Advisory Council would make policy recommendations to tackle school meal debt, prevent stigmatization, and maintain program viability. The council would be composed of fourteen members, including state food service directors, experts, parents, and cafeteria employees, appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture.


This legislation builds on Rep. Omar’s No Shame at School Act to prohibit school districts from publicly iden- tifying and shaming students who are unable to pay for school meals or hiring debt collectors to recover unpaid school meal debt. 

"No child should be shamed or forced to go hungry at school," said Rep. Omar. "Schools should be safe spaces where every child has the chance to thrive. I’m thrilled the National Advisory Council on Unpaid Meal Debt Act builds on our No Shame at School Act to provide recommendations to address unpaid school meal fees by ensuring students are not stigmatized at school.


"As a member of the Education and Labor Committee, I will continue to fight to end childhood hunger and improve access to meals to the most vulnerable," Omar said.

Minnesota latest to

boost SNAP eligibility


The group Hunger Solutions says one in three respondents who is not receiving SNAP benefits to help with food purchases reports being food insecure. (Adobe Stock)

MINNEAPOLIS—Minnesota is now the 20th state in the nation to allow the maximum eligibility for federal SNAP benefits. Hunger-fighting groups say it comes at a crucial time, as households struggle with rising grocery costs.

The end of the legislative session drew attention mostly to what Minnesota lawmakers didn't finalize, but they did agree on raising the gross-income threshold for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. It's now 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or slightly more than $46,000 a year for a family of three.

Peter Woitock, government relations specialist for the group Hunger Solutions, said some households just above the eligibility line might have seen an extra bump in pay, but inflation still makes it hard to afford food.

"We're starting to see a 'hunger cliff,' and many people experiencing that," he said. "And so, this is one partial solution that can help out some of those families that would then be eligible."

He said it also comes as a number of temporary COVID-relief programs to address food insecurity start to wind down. The group noted that some people had missed SNAP eligibility by less than $100. Senate Republicans wanted to add work verifications, but opponents of that idea argued it would have been an added burden to those already facing hardships.

In southern Minnesota, Shari Koll, who manages the Springfield Area Food Shelf, said raising the income level for eligibility also could help ease the pressure local pantries are facing.

"What we're finding is that there are more people starting to come," she said, "and when they come, they tell us how expensive things are in the grocery store."

She said they've gone from serving around 20 clients per month to 60. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has said grocery costs rose nearly 11 percent from April last year to this year. Meanwhile, those who are newly eligible for SNAP benefits can apply through the Minnesota Department of Human Services. SNAP participants receive EBT cards to use at local grocery stores.

subway tune.jpg

Ok, Subwaytuna or not?

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN)—A federal judge on has denied sandwich giant Subway’s bid to dismiss consumers’ claims the tuna served in its restaurants isn’t tuna at all.

Karen Dhanowa and Nilima Amin grabbed national headlines in 2020 when they accused Subway of duping consumers into paying more for sandwiches advertised as tuna without having tuna in them at all.

“In truth, the products do not contain tuna as ingredient. On the contrary, the filling in the products has no scintilla of tuna at all. In fact, the products entirely lack any trace of tuna as a component, let alone the main or predomi- nant ingredient,” the women claimed in their lawsuit filed in the Northern District of California. 

Speculation abounded. A New York Times reporter actually purchased 60 inches of sandwich, removed the tuna and sent it off to a lab for analysis. The results were inconclusive, as the meat was too processed to identify. 

Since then, the sandwich chain has launched a campaign to defend itself against these accusations, even creating a website——as a defense from the lawsuits and a New York Times probe. 

This past October, US District Judge Jon Tigar tossed the women’s lawsuit, finding they failed to meet a critical standard for describing any fraudulent conduct.

The plaintiffs fired back with an amended complaint claiming Subway’s tuna either partially or wholly lack tuna. In fact, they claimed the tuna may contain other fish and animal products or miscellaneous products—noting sam- ples from California restaurants indicated the tuna filling was "a mixture of various concoctions that do not cons- titute tuna, yet have been blended together by defendants to imitate the appearance of tuna."

They did not report what lab tests found in lieu of tuna. But Subway denied these claims, telling Food and Wine that "Subway delivers 100 percent cooked tuna to its restaurants, which is mixed with mayonnaise and used in freshly made sandwiches, wraps and salads that are served to and enjoyed by our guests. Given the facts, the lawsuit constitutes a reckless and improper attack on Subway’s brand and goodwill, and on the liveli- hood of its California franchisees."

Ruling on a new motion to dismiss, Tigar found July 7 that Dhanowa’s claims should be nixed with prejudice since she had apparently never purchased tuna sandwiches from Subway. He also accepted Subway’s argu- ment that no consumer would be misled into thinking its tuna products didn’t contain other ingredients—mayo- nnaise, bread, other things normally found in a tuna sandwich—and dismissed claims made on that basis.

But Tigar declined to dismiss claims that Subway’s tuna contains “other fish species, animal species or miscella- neous products.”

While Subway argued that any non-tuna DNA discovered in tests must have come from the eggs in mayonnaise or cross-contact with other ingredients, Tigar said it is possible it comes from ingredients consumers wouldn’t expect to be in a tuna sandwich.

"Even if the court accepted Subway’s statement that all non-tuna DNA must be caused by cross-contact with other Subway ingredients, it still would not dismiss the complaint on this basis," Tigar wrote. "Whether, and to what extent, a reasonable consumer expects cross-contact between various Subway ingredients is a question of fact."

He also denied Subway’s motion to dismiss claims its tuna products have no tuna at all "because a reasonable consumer would expect that a product advertised as 'tuna' to contain at least some tuna as an ingredient."

As for claims of fraud in advertising, Tigar found Amin provided enough details for why the company’s descrip- tions could be misleading if there are other ingredients besides tuna in a tuna product. He also said at this stage in the litigation, nothing in the law requires Amin to provide specifics about the lab tests she and her attorneys had run on the tuna product.

Subway’s lawyer Mark C. Goodman did not respond to a request for comment by press time.



Spooked by backlash on social media, retail giant yanks its Juneteenth Ice Cream from freezer shelves 




LOS ANGELES (MNS)Rattled by a potential backlash about the debut of its new dessert product Juneteenth Ice Cream, Walmart corporate officials pulled the item, which commemorates Juneteenth after criticism appeared on social media.


The ice cream, consisting of a swirl of red velvet and cheesecake flavors, features what appears to be an inoffensive proclamation: "Share and celebrate African-American culture, emancipation and enduring hope."


But some on social media have accused Walmart of using Juneteenth as a marketing scheme. One was comedian Roy Wood Jr., who tweeted, "Would you like some Juneteenth Ice cream on a Juneteenth plate as you sip your beer in a Juneteenth Koozie?"

Another man named Christopher, tweeted, "So what type of toppings do you put on this mess? Crushed souls and shackle-shaped sprinkles??? It’s a no for me."

Still a third tweeter who goes by the name, Uncle Samp, shared, "Walmart backed Juneteenth ice cream is in the same vein as what's happened to BLM, and Pride, and Anti Work. As our ideas become more 'main- stream' we have to think of how to protect them from being recuperated and de-radicalized."

Estelle Goodlow, who said she read about the backlash and subsequent reaction by Walmart management on Facebook, laughed at Walmart's "overreaction. I think it's funny that they would pull the ice cream. I don't see anything wrong with it. I'm disappointed. I would have both some."


Walmart was apolegetic and released a statement to media outlets: "Juneteenth holiday marks a celebration of freedom and independence. However, we received feedback that a few items caused concern for some of our customers and we sincerely apologize. We are reviewing our assortment and will remove items as appropriate."

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, two months after the Confederacy had surrendered. It was about 2 1/2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 was signed by President Abraham Lincoln freeing slaves in Texas.

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