Don’t be so quick to “like” your favorite snack on Facebook or you could be giving up more than you bargained for. General Mills just released a new policy that makes it so customers who do “like” their products also give up their right to take the company to court if there’s a problem with it.
The change, first reported by The New York Times Thursday, comes just as the mega food corporation behind Cheerios and Fruit Roll-Ups fights several class-action lawsuits challenging its misleading product labels and advertisements as healthy or natural.
The new legal policy signals a new tactic by companies to keep out of court by using consumers’ social media habits against them. Getting any sort of “benefit” from the company — downloading coupons, engaging with General Mills’ social media accounts or entering a sweepstakes — means customers forfeit their right to file a lawsuit a big lawsuit even for health reasons. Instead, they have to first informally haggle with a company representative to resolve their complaints, after which the case goes to a private arbitrator or small claims court if a deal can’t be reached. The only way customers can get out of the new terms is by emailing General Mills’ legal team and completely removing any online association with the brands — un-liking every post, Facebook page or un-registering from any email lists. Customers could have easily missed General Mills’ new online policy, mainly because most users agree to new privacy and legal terms without reading them fully.
General Mills and the food industry overall have seen a deluge of lawsuits involving everything from false advertising to overblown health benefits. The company is currently fending off several class action lawsuits over its use of genetically modified ingredients in its Nature Valley granola bars that tout a “100% natural” label. General Mills also paid out $8.5 million in settlements for a dispute involving its use of a thickening ingredient in its Yoplait Greek Yogurt, which was criticized as making the product technically not yogurt.
The company has come under a lot of fire in the past for targeting its products to children and misleadingly promoting junk food as somewhat healthy snacks to parents. But food corporations, including General Mills, have a huge influence in Washington. The industry has spent almost $200 million in lobbying since 2009. The result has been fewer mandatory regulations and a growing reliance on more self-regulatory guidelines, such as the proposed voluntary rules General Mills, Kellogg and other companies drafted with Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign. Other companies, such as Coca-Cola, fast food restaurant chains Panda Express, and Taco Bell, have similarly struggled with misleading advertising practices aimed at shifting the focus on obesity epidemic from their products.
General Mills announced in a blog post Saturday that it was scrapping its new legal terms:
We rarely have disputes with consumers – and arbitration would have simply streamlined how complaints are handled. Many companies do the same, and we felt it would be helpful.
But consumers didn’t like it.
So we’ve reverted back to our prior terms. There’s no mention of arbitration, and the arbitration provisions we had posted were never enforced.