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The Lies in Your Grocery Store

The New Yorker [read free]: “…Most people accept the gimmicks of food labelling. One lawyer can’t stomach them…Sheehan, forty-four, specializes in consumer-protection class-action suits. Specifically, he focusses on packaged foods, and on the authenticity of their ingredients and flavors. Sheehan has sued the makers of frosted strawberry Pop-Tarts (dearth of real strawberries), Hint of Lime Tostitos (absence of lime), Snapple “all natural” fruit drinks (absence of natural juice), Keebler’s fudge-mint cookies (lack of real fudge and mint), Cheesecake Factory brown bread (insufficient whole-grain flour), Trident original-flavor gum (lack of real mint, despite package’s illustration of a blue mint leaf), and many more, generally seeking millions in damages from each. He also pursues class actions unrelated to food, involving subtle fraud in products such as toothpaste (Tom’s of Maine Fluoride-Free Antiplaque & Whitening, for containing no ingredient that fights plaque) and sunscreen (Coppertone Pure & Simple, for being neither). Sheehan emphasized this breadth of scope during our first phone conversation. “It took Matthew McConaughey years after that movie he did with Sarah Jessica Parker—‘Failure to Launch’?—to be taken seriously as an actor,” he told me. “No one likes to be typecast.” But Sheehan has been typecast, with his tacit approval. He’s a food-label zealot, and is especially relentless with vanilla cases. (Tabloids have called him “the vanilla vigilante.”) “Real” fruit and artificial smoke flavoring are in his crosshairs, too. Since 2018, Sheehan’s firm has filed more than five hundred consumer-protection class-action suits, making New York one of the top states for such cases. At annual food-law conferences, presenters displaying litigation trends provide two sets of statistics: one including Sheehan’s cases, one without. Some of his lawsuits, including one involving an “aged vanilla” claim made by A&W Root Beer, have resulted in multimillion-dollar settlements; some make headlines; many are dismissed. Defendants and judges “might roll their eyes at a case,” Sheehan said, “because, yes, it can be somewhat amusing. But I can proudly and honestly say I’ve never been sanctioned by a court for filing anything frivolous.”

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