Judge: Nestlé, Hershey Don’t Have To Put Child Slave Labor Disclosure On Chocolate Labels

Image courtesy of SarahMcGowen

While it might matter to some consumers that slave labor was involved in making that chocolate bar on the grocery store shelf, food companies like Nestlé and Hershey don’t have to disclose what kind of workers are involved in the production process on product labels, a judge ruled this week.

U.S. District Judge Joseph Spero ruled that the two chocolate companies don’t have a duty to disclose that their cocoa suppliers use child slave labor, Courthouse News reports, basically because there’s not enough room for such things.

“There are countless issues that may be legitimately important to many customers, and the courts are not suited to determine which should occupy the limited surface area of a chocolate wrapper,” Spero wrote in a pair of identical rulings related to two class actions against Nestlé and Hershey.

Two customers sued the companies back in September 2015, claiming that both Nestlé and Hershey were violating California’s Consumer Legal Remedies Act and the state’s unfair competition and false advertising laws by not disclosing labor uses in its supply chain on chocolate product labels.

Another class action was filed by a customer against Mars, but his appeal of U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg’s dismissal of the case is pending in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals at the moment.

According to a Tulane University study cited in the complaints, more than 4,000 children are forced to work at plantations in Ivory Coast producing cocoa. Some of those young ones are sold by parents to traffickers, and others are kidnapped, the study says. Others may have migrated voluntarily but are then snapped up by traffickers and sold to recruiters or farmers, the complaint alleges. Once they’re sent to isolated farmers, they’re locked up at night, threatened with beatings, and forced to work long days even when they’re sick, the complaint states.

It wasn’t enough that the plaintiffs wouldn’t have bought Hershey or Nestlé products if they’d known about these practices, however, Spero found, referencing Seeborg’s ruling in dismissing the other consumer’s actions.

“The court agrees with Judge Seeborg’s conclusion that the weight of authority limits a duty to disclose under the Consumer Legal Remedies Act to issues of product safety, unless disclosure is necessary to counter an affirmative misrepresentation,” he wrote. “Further, the court agrees with Judge Seeborg and Hershey that some bright-line limitation on a manufacturer’s duty to disclose is sound policy, given the difficulty of anticipating exactly what information some customers might find material to their purchasing decisions and wish to see on product labels.”

Just because California law includes a duty to disclose, that doesn’t extend to “‘all information [that] may persuade a consumer to make different purchasing decisions,’ ” Spero said, citing the Mars case.

Spero dismissed the unfair competition claim against the companies, finding that the plaintiffs hadn’t identified any legislative policy that would require the companies to disclose their supplier’s slave-labor practice on product labels, and that those disclosures are not required under the law.

He also put the kibosh on the false advertising claim, saying they were based on “pure omissions” instead of actual misleading statements.

We’ve reached out to Nestlé and Hershey on the question of whether the companies work with suppliers that use child slave labor, and will update this post if we hear back.

Hershey & Nestle Duck Suits Over Slave Labor [Courthouse News]