The headline that caught my eye – "Nutella settles lawsuit" – took me back instantly to memories of slathering the product on real French bread. It was convenient. You spread it on like peanut butter, but it tasted so much better: chocolate with just the right essence of hazelnut.
Back then, it was touted as an after-school treat for European kids and hard to find in the United States. Now, it's marketed increasingly for breakfast for American children. That's what got its maker, Italy's Ferrero Group (which also makes Ferrero Chocolates and Tic Tacs), into trouble with US courts.
Advertised as a way to get children to eat a healthy breakfast, Ferrero was insinuating that Nutella was healthy when, in fact, it has about as much nutritional value as a candy bar. Or so claimed several consumers, who sued the company's US unit.
As part of its settlement of two class-action suits, Ferrero U.S.A. Inc. is offering to reimburse consumers for up to five jars (at $4 a jar). Since it doesn't appear you need any receipts, it's one of the easiest $20 you can make. You can apply here.
Your actual reward could amount to less than $20, because so many people may apply for the $3.05 million available. But I'm not sure I'll be one of those people.
Our family is certainly entitled to the money. My daughter has become a big fan, so we bought far more than five jars of Nutella between the court-specified period of Jan. 1, 2008, to Feb. 3, 2012 (Aug. 1, 2009, to Jan. 23, 2012. for those in California, where one of the suits was filed).
And while we were never duped into thinking Nutella was health food, some food companies are so cavalier about enhancing the appeal of their products with words like "natural" that maybe Ferrero deserves to be made to pay. Call it social justice. Or punitive damages.
But here's the thing: Ferrero doesn't appear to be a rapacious megacorporation. It looks to be run like a conscientious family-run business.
The company issued its first social responsibility report two years before the first lawsuits were filed. This year it stopped advertising to audiences where more than half of the viewers or readers are under 12; next year, no more than 35 percent of the audience can be under 12. It has started a training program with USAID for hazelnut growers in the country of Georgia. Last year, one of its two managing directors (and a grandson of the founder) died during a humanitarian mission to South Africa. By 2020, the company aims to supply all its cocoa, palm oil, and coffee from sustainable farms.
These are not the moves of a company with a single-minded focus on the bottom line.
And the ads that helped convince several judges there was a case against Ferrero? Here's the transcript of one TV ad from court documents:
"[MOM]: As a mom, I’m a great believer in Nutella, a delicious hazelnut spread that I use to get mykids to eat healthy foods. I spread a little on all kinds of healthy things, like multigrain toast. Everyjar has wholesome, quality ingredients, like hazelnuts, skim milk, and a hint of delicious cocoa. AndNutella has no artificial colors or preservatives. It’s quick, it’s easy, and at breakfast I can use all thehelp I can get.
[VOICEOVER]: Nutella—breakfast never tasted this good."
Does that qualify as deception? You be the judge. I'm not applying for the money.