A billion-dollar legal battle between big sugar processors and corn refiners over the nutritional value of high-fructose corn syrup was settled in the midst of a trial in downtown Los Angeles, attorneys announced Friday.
Terms of the settlement were not released.
The litigation began with a lawsuit filed in 2011 by sugar refiners including Domino Sugar-owner ASR Group, alleging that the corn trade group’s ad campaign describing high fructose corn syrup — HFCS — as “corn sugar’ and “nutritionally the same as sugar” was false.
The corn refiners countersued, saying the Sugar Association falsely claimed in its newsletter that corn syrup causes obesity and cancer.
In opening statements two weeks ago, attorney Mark Lanier, representing the sugar processors, gave the eight-member federal civil jury a short rundown of the 2,000-year history of sugar, suggesting that all was well in the business until HFCS was “invented in a Japanese laboratory in 1955” and made commercially available in the 1970s.
“It’s cheap, it’s made from corn,” Lanier said, adding that it was linked to Cheez-Whiz and other popular processed foods.
However, in the early 2000s, Lanier alleged, “the tide really started to change” for HFCS, when articles began appearing suggesting that corn syrup “may play a role in the obesity epidemic.”
Allegations in the media about HFCS’ so-called hazards “started to have an effect on the market,” the attorney said, and refiners began a “sugar is sugar” campaign to convince consumers that “your body can’t tell the difference.”
Lanier said that, in fact, “your body can tell the difference and the corn refiners knew it.”
But attorney Dan Webb, representing Cargill and other large corn refiners, told the jury that each of Lanier’s allegations was “false,” and branded the sugar industry’s lawsuit as “phony.”
The Sugar Association’s contention that HFCS plays a part in diabetes, stroke and other ailments is based on “junk science,” he told jurors.
The sugar trade group’s real gripe against HFCS is that the corn refiners “took a large market share from the sugar companies,” up to 50 percent of the market by 2003, Webb said.
A “decade of attacks” by the sugar companies and their trade group followed, the attorney said, including such anti-corn syrup zingers as calling HFCS “the crack cocaine of all sweeteners” and alleging that the stuff “can make you fat and stupid.”
In fact, Webb told the jury, HFCS is “nutritionally equivalent to sugar” and is simply a “form of sugar made from corn.”
Both are “metabolized by your body in the same way,” he said.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2012 ruled that corn syrup, used to sweeten foods including soda, could not be called sugar.
The sugar growers sought $1.1 billion in compensatory damages over the advertising campaign, plus punitive damages and fees, Lanier said.
The corn refiners sought about $530 million in their countersuit.
The litigation was filed in Los Angeles because Sugar Association members are located within the jurisdiction of the Central District of California.
—City News Service
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