By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) - General Mills Inc must defend a lawsuit that claims the food company deceived consumers into believing its Fruit Roll-Ups and Fruit by the Foot snacks are made with real fruit.
Reasonable consumers might be misled by packaging that claimed the snacks are "made with real fruit," and would not read the fine print, U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti in San Francisco said on Thursday.
The federal lawsuit is one of many accusing food companies of advertising products as being healthier than they are.
Last month, Italy's Ferrero set aside $3 million to settle a lawsuit by a U.S. lawsuit that claimed its Nutella chocolate spread could not be considered a healthy and nutritious part of a balanced breakfast.
The General Mills case was brought in October by Annie Lam, a resident of Daly City, California. It sought class-action status on behalf of consumers nationwide.
Lam said General Mills incorrectly described the ingredients of its fruit snacks, citing strawberry-flavored Fruit Roll-Ups that contain "pears from concentrate," but no strawberries.
Among the ingredients listed in court papers are corn syrup, dried corn syrup, sugar and partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil.
Lam also said the packaging was likely to deceive consumers into believing the snacks are healthful and natural, rather than a combination of artificial, non-fruit ingredients.
"The court agrees with Lam," Conti wrote. "The fruit snacks' ingredients list cannot be used to correct the message that reasonable consumers may take from the rest of the packaging: that the fruit snacks are made with a particular type and quantity of fruit."
Conti also dismissed other claims over the packaging. The complaint alleged violations of California and Minnesota consumer protection laws. General Mills is based in Minneapolis.
Maerenn Jepsen, a General Mills spokeswoman, said the company does not discuss pending litigation.
"We stand behind our products, and we stand behind the accuracy of the labeling of those products," she said.
Michael Reese, a lawyer for Lam, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
General Mills' food brands include Betty Crocker baking mixes, Cheerios and Wheaties cereal, Green Giant vegetables, Haagen-Dazs ice cream and Progresso soup.
The case is Lam v. General Mills Inc, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, No. 11-05056.
(Reporting By Jonathan Stempel in New York; editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)