A Long Island lawyer is waging a legal crusade against food makers that he says mislead consumers into believing their products are flavored with real vanilla.
Great Neck attorney Spencer Sheehan said that since the beginning of the year he has filed 27 lawsuits on behalf of consumers related to yogurt, cookies, oatmeal, almond milk, soy milk, cream soda and ice cream labeled as "vanilla."
The U.S. District Court cases, each seeking $5 million in damages, were filed against a variety of food brands, including Turkey Hill LP, Danone North America LLC and Voortman Cookies Limited.
The Food and Drug Administration publishes regulations that govern how manufacturers describe the flavoring of specific products such as vanilla ice cream.
Sheehan said that many manufacturers, mindful of consumer psychology, are hesitant to label their product as "vanilla flavored," even though the predominant flavoring does not come from costly vanilla plants.
"A lot of these companies are aware that I'm correct," he said. "If we're saying vanilla ice cream, we're saying the flavor comes from vanilla, which is an integral part of the ice cream. The only flavoring in the product should be vanilla from vanilla beans."
Rather than use expensive botanically derived vanilla exclusively (about $250 for a gallon of vanilla extract based on a recent Google search), manufacturers sometimes mix in synthetically derived vanillin (about $7 for a gallon) and other flavor enhancers, according to the court papers.
For instance, in a lawsuit filed against Turkey Hill in August, the lawsuit charges that several of the manufacturer's vanilla ice creams have misleading labeling because "they misrepresent...the percentage of vanilla compared to the overall flavor component."
Representatives of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania-based Turkey Hill (owned by an affiliate of private equity firm Peak Rock Capital LLC based in Austin, Texas) did not respond to a request for comment.
In the case against Danone North America, a unit of France's Danone S.A., the lawsuit describes the company's labeling of "vanilla with other natural flavors" as an "end-run through consumer protections."
In an email, Danone North America spokesman Michael Neuwirth said that the company stands by its packaging.
"We are confident that our vanilla flavor labeling is fully compliant and is in no way deceptive to consumers," he said.
The lawsuit against Voortman, which is owned by San Francisco private equity firm Swander Pace Capital Co. Inc., likewise questioned the front package labeling of its Vanilla wafers baked with "real vanilla" when the ingredients listing made no mention of vanilla or vanillin.
A spokesman for Swander Pace said the company would have no comment.
No judge has yet ruled on class-action status in any of the vanilla cases. Sheehan said such cases often do not reach the stage of a class action and many are settled by the parties.
Norman Silber, who teaches consumer law at Hofstra University's Maurice A. Deane School of Law, said that federal agencies have been "less than aggressive" in enforcing labeling laws.
"It's not insignificant," he said. "Consumers have to trust that the ingredients in a product are the ingredients."
The failure of government agencies to enforce regulations "creates a void" where manufacturers may feel free to push the "boundaries of what's acceptable," Silber said.
At the same time, Silber said, some litigants and their lawyers press these cases in the hope of getting a settlement from the company "however meritorious they may or may not be."
Sheehan, a vegetarian involved with animal rescue groups, once helped "subway vigilante" Bernhard Goetz avoid eviction from his Manhattan apartment for allegedly harboring a pet squirrel.
He said that he met Goetz through his father and that the 2015 New York City Housing Court case ultimately was settled.
"He got to remain in his apartment," said Sheehan, who described Goetz as someone who would tend to injured squirrels.
Goetz made headlines when he was arrested after pulling a pistol and wounding four African-American teenagers in the New York City subway in December 1984. He said he feared they were trying to mug him.
In another wildlife case, Sheehan represented a Lakeland, Florida, woman who was under investigation by state authorities because her nearly six-foot pet alligator, Rambo, did not have sufficient space to roam.
Ultimately the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission granted her a license specific to Rambo, who she sometimes would dress as Santa Claus.
"Bernie couldn't keep a squirrel, but in Florida you can keep an alligator dressed up as Santa," Sheehan said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the subway events.