Food companies are very adept at using the Web as a vehicle for branding and advertising. You can “Like” your favorite yogurt on Facebook, buy your favorite breakfast cereal online, or download a coupon for your go-to granola bar with a click of a button. But beware: Those seemingly harmless online activities could have legal consequences.
General Mills – which manufactures a wide range of products, including cereals like Cheerios and Lucky Charms, as well as brands like Betty Crocker, Bisquick, and Progresso – has added language into its website telling consumers that they will give up their right to sue General Mills if they enter into certain forms of engagement with the company online. The story was first reported Thursday by the New York Times.
Examples include downloading coupons, joining online forums for General Mills products on its websites, entering company-sponsored contests – basically using a General Mills website or other online service in any way. The company also seemed to suggest that merely buying a General Mills product entered customers into that agreement.
Instead, customers will have to resolve conflicts via e-mail or by entering into legal arbitration, rather than through the US court system.
Here’s the partial text of the notice on the General Mills website:
“In exchange for the benefits, discounts, content, features, services, or other offerings that you receive or have access to by using our websites, joining our sites as a member, joining our online community, subscribing to our email newsletters, downloading or printing a digital coupon, entering a sweepstakes or contest, redeeming a promotional offer, or otherwise participating in any other General Mills offering, you are agreeing to these terms.
Of course, your decision to do any of these things … is entirely voluntary. But if you choose to do any of these things, then you agree to be bound by this Agreement.”
Citing legal experts, the original Times story interpreted the notice’s broad language to mean that “liking” a General Mills product on Facebook was an agreement to the new terms. But a spokesman for the company rejected that assessment in an e-mail to the paper Thursday.
“No one is precluded from suing us merely by purchasing our products at the store or liking one of our brand Facebook pages,” spokesman Mike Siemienas wrote. "For example, should an individual subscribe to one of our publications or download coupons, these terms would apply. But even then, the policy would not and does not preclude a consumer from pursuing a claim. It merely determines a forum for pursuing a claim. And arbitration is a straightforward and efficient way to resolve such disputes.”
The change comes in the wake of several costly class-action lawsuits against General Mills from consumers in recent years. In 2012, the company settled one suit by taking the word “strawberry” off labels for strawberry-flavored Fruit Roll-Ups. Last year, it settled a lawsuit over allegedly false health claims made on the label of its Yoplait Yoplus brand yogurt for $8.5 million. It faces a current legal over use of the word “natural” in Nature Valley granola bars. As consumers become savvier about the products they buy and more demanding of companies for transparency, the food manufacturer could be looking to avoid future costly, public battles.
General Mills isn’t the first company to introduce such a policy; the Supreme Court made it legal in 2011, ruling that companies could use a standard form agreement to require arbitration and avoid class-action lawsuits. But it is the first food company to adopt such language, which some consumer advocates find troubling because of the high health stakes of safely manufacturing food and advertising it truthfully.
“Although this is the first case I’ve seen of a food company moving in this direction, others will follow – why wouldn’t you?” Julia Duncan, director of federal programs and an arbitration expert at the American Association for Justice, told the Times. “It’s essentially trying to protect the company from all accountability, even when it lies, or say, an employee deliberately adds broken glass to a product.”
Consumers who wish to do so can opt out of the agreement by sending General Mills an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, that includes first name, last name, and date of birth. But the opt-out only holds as long as you no longer download any coupons or buy anything off a General Mills site.