Sugar farmers sue over 'corn sugar' campaign

By Sarah Skidmore

AP Food Industry Writer

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) -- The sugar industry is seeking some sweet revenge. A group of sugar farmers and refiners have filed a lawsuit against several corn processors and their lobbying group for their effort to rebrand high-fructose corn syrup as "corn sugar".

The Western Sugar Cooperative, Michigan Sugar Co. and C&H Sugar Company Inc. are asking the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles to end the corn industry campaign that markets high-fructose corn syrup as a natural product that is equivalent to sugar.

They say the campaign constitutes false advertising and are seeking compensation for lost profits and corrective advertising. The corn industry say the case has no merit.

The lawsuit is part of larger debate surrounding the sweetener among consumers, regulators and the food industry.

High-fructose corn syrup is a sweetener used in products including soda, cereal, bread and ketchup. But Americans' consumption of corn syrup fell to a 20-year low last year as concerns grow about its health and environmental impact.

Sugar and high fructose corn syrup are nutritionally the same, most health experts say. And people should generally consume less of all sugars.

Some critics argue its prevalence as a low-cost ingredient has helped fuel the obesity crisis and that the harvesting of corn to make it hurts the environment.

Food and beverage makers have, in turn, replaced high-fructose corn syrup with real sugar in some products, including some varieties of Heinz ketchup and Gatorade.

The American Medical Association says there's not enough evidence yet to restrict the use of high fructose corn syrup, but it wants more research.

The Corn Refiners Association asked the federal government last year for permission to use the name "corn sugar" on food labels, hoping to improve its image and clear up confusion. The Food and Drug Administration could take two years to decide but that didn't stop the industry from using the term in advertising right away.

It launched an extensive marketing campaign, including websites, television and print commercials to spread the new name and counter concerns about the sweetener.

"This suit is about false advertising, pure and simple," said Inder Mathur, President and CEO of Western Sugar Cooperative, which represents about 1,000 American sugar beet farmers. "If consumers are concerned about your product, then you should improve it or explain its benefits, not try to deceive people about its name or distort scientific facts."

Companies named as defendants include Archer Daniels Midland Co., Cargill Inc., Corn Products International Inc., Penford Products Co., Roquette America, Inc., Tate & Lyle Ingredients Americas Inc. and the companies' marketing and lobbying organization, The Corn Refiners Association Inc.

The corn industry says the campaign is about education, not marketing.

"Sugar is sugar. High-fructose corn syrup and sugar are nutritionally and metabolically equivalent; experts have supported this claim," said Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Association. "The name 'corn sugar' more accurately describes this sweetener and helps clarify food products labeling for manufacturers and consumers alike."

She said high-fructose corn syrup makes many healthy foods palatable and affordable.

"It is disappointing that another sweetener would sue the competition for its own gain -- and stand in the way of consumer clarity about added sugars in the diet."

Published: Mon, May 2, 2011