A group of lawyers who made a name for themselves (and a small fortune) successfully suing tobacco companies on behalf of states has turned its sights on big food manufacturers, claiming liability for mislabeled or misleadingly labeled products.  In the past few months, more than a dozen lawyers who were involved with the suits against the tobacco companies have filed 25 complaints against major food brands including ConAgra Foods, PepsiCo, Heinz, General Mills and Chobani.

Several recent suits against major food manufacturers that called into question the use of health claims and terms like “natural” as being false advertising have been dismissed or settled. A 2009 case against PepsiCo which claimed their Crunch Berries cereal was misleading because it does not contain actual berries, was dismissed by a judge. More recently, the makers of Nutella opted to settle a suit out of court over their advertisements claiming that Nutella was a healthy breakfast food.

But the former tobacco litigators are targeting much more specific rules violations they find with product labels.  Their case against Chobani, for example, cites the company for using the term “evaporated cane juice” on its label instead of “sugar,” because the FDA has repeatedly warned companies against using the misleading term.

If the lawyers are successful, the cases could result in huge liabilities because the group is seeking damages based on sales of the products with misleading labels.  Although the company doesn’t break down its revenue by product, the New York Times reports that Chobani’s total revenues are expected to be more than $1.5 billion this year, for example, and the lawsuit against them involves nearly half their product line.

The price tags on these lawsuits have some critics claiming that the suits are frivolous and that the lawyers are only after their next big payday.

“Food companies will argue that these are harmless crimes—the tobacco companies said the same thing,” Don Barrett, one of the lead lawyers in the group, told the New York Times. “But to diabetics and some other people, sugar is just as deadly as poison.”

image by bpende