Customer Sues Over Citric Acid In “Preservative-Free” Lean Cuisine Pizza

“Preservative-free” is a food label that plenty of shoppers seek out, and it’s printed right on the front of Lean Cuisine’s boxes of frozen pizza. One customer claims, however, that this label isn’t accurate. Whether she’s right depends on whether citric acid — a chemical that serves different purposes in different kinds of food — is considered a “preservative.”

Here are the basic facts: a woman who lives in New York City bought a Lean Cuisine at the store and ate it. She paid $3.39 for the pizza. According to her initial complaint [PDF], “preservative-free” food was a selling point, and her attorneys note that “[c]onsumers are willing to pay more for products with no additives because of this association as well as the perceived higher quality, health and safety benefits associated with preservative-free foods.”

The “preservative” in question here is citric acid, which can be used for different purposes in different types of food. It can be used to create a “tart” flavor in candy, or to adjust the acidity in non-candy food products.

The Food and Drug Administration indeed lists citric acid as a preservative, and the lawsuit argues that it should be labeled as such in the product’s ingredients, and there should be no “no preservatives” claim on the box.

A food scientist pointed out to Food Navigator that citric acid in a frozen entrée probably serves another purpose, since being frozen inhibits the growth of mold and bacteria, and cooking the food item also kills pathogens.

That leads to a complicated question, at least if you’re a frozen food company: is a product still “preservative-free” if it has a substance in it that can be used as a preservative, but isn’t being used that way in this particular product?

The complaint in this case defines “preservatives” broadly. It explains that the plaintiff bought the pizza “on the assumption that this was for food free of preservatives and would not have paid this money had she known that it contained preservatives.”

Food Navigator reports that the same law firm representing the pizza-buying plaintiff is suing two other packaged food companies over the use of citric acid, snack company Herr and pickling company Kimlan Foods in similar class actions.

Nestlé USA, the company that sells Lean Cuisine, told TMZ, “The allegations are baseless and we will vigorously defend ourselves. All Nestle products and labels comply with FDA and USDA regulations.”

(via TMZ)