“READY IN THREE ½ MINUTES” declares the packaging for Velveeta’s microwaveable mac and cheese cups. But that’s simply not true, according to one allegedly inconvenienced South Florida woman, who points out that the figure accounts for just the microwave time. It does not include other time-consuming steps such as tearing off the lid, adding water and stirring in cheese sauce, she argues.
Amanda Ramirez might not have bothered buying the Shells & Cheese product “had she known the truth,” says a proposed class-action lawsuit in which she is the lead plaintiff. The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Miami, seeks more than $5 million in damages on behalf of the Hialeah woman and other purportedly hoodwinked customers. It accuses the Kraft Heinz Co., the maker of the cheesy cups, of deceptive and unfair trade practices.
“Consumers seeing ‘ready in 3½ minutes’ will believe it represents the total amount of time it takes to prepare the Product, meaning from the moment it is unopened to the moment it is ready for consumption,” the complaint argues.
The Kraft Heinz Co. said in a statement to The Washington Post that it was aware of the “frivolous lawsuit” and “will strongly defend against the allegations in the complaint.”
The lawsuit, previously covered by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, was filed this month by William Wright of the Wright Law Office in West Palm Beach and Spencer Sheehan of Sheehan & Associates in Great Neck, N.Y.
“I’ve gotten a lot of flak about this case, but deceptive advertising is deceptive advertising,” Wright said Monday by email. “Here, Kraft charges extra for a desirable feature (saving time) but the marketing is false, it takes far longer for the product to be ready than as advertised. Deceptive advertising plain and simple.”
Sheehan did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The attorney, whose website calls on people to get in touch with issues they have been told are “unsolvable,” has made a name for himself suing food manufacturers he says mislead consumers. He has filed more than 400 such lawsuits in recent years, NPR reported, and in doing so has “almost single-handedly caused a historic spike in the number of class-action lawsuits against food and beverage companies.”
He went after Kellogg, arguing that the company’s strawberry Pop-Tarts marketing is deceptive because the pastries contain additional fruits. He said Keebler and Betty Crocker were wrong to call their cookie and cake mixes fudge because they contained no milk fat. And he took on Keurig Dr Pepper over the words that appear on A&W Root Beer cans: “MADE WITH AGED VANILLA.” That was among about 120 lawsuits over companies’ assertions that their products contain vanilla, NPR reported.
“I guess I’ve always been the type who would become annoyed [and] never liked it when companies cheated people for small amounts it would be difficult to recoup,” Sheehan told the outlet.
In the mac-and-cheese case, the complaint alleges that the Kraft Heinz Co. has been able to charge a premium price — $10.99 for eight 2.39 oz cups — by claiming that the snack takes only 3½ minutes to make. It lays out the steps on the back of the package:
“First, consumers must ‘REMOVE lid and Cheese Sauce Pouch.’
“Next, they must ‘ADD water to fill line in cup. STIR.’ Third, ‘MICROWAVE, uncovered, on HIGH 3-½ min. DO NOT DRAIN.’
“Finally, they should ‘STIR IN contents of cheese sauce pouch.’ Defendant then notes that ‘CHEESE SAUCE WILL THICKEN UPON STANDING.’ ”
Those directions, the complaint says, “show that 3-and-a-half minutes is just the length of time to complete one of several steps.” A truthful label would have stated that the product takes 3½ minutes to cook in the microwave, it adds.
The lawsuit accuses the Kraft Heinz Co. of fraud, false and misleading advertising, breach of express warranty, negligent misrepresentation and unjust enrichment, along with violations of laws barring deceptive and unfair trade practices. The lawyers say there are probably more than 100 victims spanning multiple states where the product is sold.
“There are a lot of people that may feel this is just a little fibbing and not really a case and I get that. But we are striving for something better,” Wright said in his email. “We want corporate America to be straightforward and truthful in advertising their products. My firm also represents clients in what most would say are more compelling cases (arsenic in baby food, etc.) but we don’t feel corporations should get a pass for any deceptive advertising. The consumers deserve better.”
Ramirez, the lead plaintiff, purchased the Velveeta Shells & Cheese cups multiple times, according to the complaint. She “is like many consumers who seek to stretch their money as far as possible when buying groceries,” it said, and “looks to bold statements of value.”
She would buy the mac and cheese again “when she can do so with the assurance its representations are consistent with its abilities, attributes, and/or composition,” according to the complaint. But for now, she can’t rely on the claims made by the Velveeta product or other similar ones claiming to be ready in a set amount of time, “because she is unsure whether those representations are truthful.”