The Federal Court has found food giant Heinz misled the public by implying on the packaging of its Little Kids Shredz range that the snack product is beneficial to the health of young children.
Legal action was launched last year with the consumer watchdog accusing Heinz of deliberately misleading the public about the nutritional content of the Shredz range, which comprises products containing fruit pastes, purees and concentrate.
During court proceedings in Adelaide, counsel for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) said the boxes feature images of fruit and vegetables and state “99 per cent fruit and veg” when the products contain around 60 per cent sugar.
In his judgment, Justice Richard White upheld part of the ACCC’s claim that the representations on the boxes falsely imply that the products were beneficial to toddlers.
“Heinz ought to have known that it was making the healthy food representation in relation to each product and that that representation was false or misleading,” he said.
Justice White said the products were not beneficial to children aged one to three due to their high sugar content and sticky texture.
He found the company engaged in “misleading or deceptive” conduct that breached Australian Consumer Law.
“Each of the Heinz nutritionists ought to have known that a representation that a product containing approximately two thirds sugar was beneficial to the health of children aged one to three years was misleading,” he said.
“Each ought to have known that consumption of a product with that level of sugar may have the effects which underpin the [World Health Organisation] guidelines.”
The ACCC’s initial complaint referred to three items in the Shredz range — an apple product, a peach product, and a fruit and chia product.
“We were particularly concerned by Heinz’s conduct because the Shredz products were marketed as being beneficial for young children,” ACCC acting chair Delia Rickard said in a statement.
“Heinz’s Shredz products consisted of over 60 per cent sugar, significantly higher than that of natural fruit and vegetables. An apple in comparison contains around 10 per cent sugar.”
Court dismisses ACCC’s other claims
Justice White dismissed claims by the ACCC that the packaging implied the products had the same nutritional value as the natural fruit and vegetables pictured on the box.
“The consumers would, in my opinion, have readily understood that the berries product was a processed product and would have understood that a representation was being made that it was derived, at least principally, from the depicted ingredients,” he said.
“They would not have understood the product to be in the form of fresh fruit and vegetables.”
He also dismissed accusations that Heinz suggested “it would encourage the development of healthy eating habits” for young children and that the products were not nutritious.
“I am not satisfied that the ACCC has established that the berries product was not nutritious… on the contrary, it did have some of the nutrients necessary to sustain human life,” Justice White said.
Heinz managing director Bruno Lino said the company was disappointed with the decision, but respected it.
“There was never any intention to mislead consumers,” he said in a statement.
“The Shredz products have not been sold here since May 2016. We are looking at the matter carefully to see if there is anything further we can learn.”
Justice White will hear further submissions on the case next month.
The ACCC said the court case followed a complaint by the Obesity Policy Coalition (OPC) about products made mostly from fruit juice concentrates and pastes.
“Heinz Shredz toddler products were falsely promoted to parents as healthy choices for children,” OPC executive manager Jane Martin said in a statement.
“These sticky snacks are higher in sugar than some confectionery, and therefore cannot be part of a healthy diet, especially for developing toddlers.”