"The lawsuit is without merit and we will aggressively defend it': Anheuser-Busch

Beck’s US beer row intensifies as AB InBev fails to KO court case claiming German brewing deception

By Ben BOUCKLEY contact

- Last updated on GMT

Beck’s US beer row intensifies as Anheuser-Busch fails to KO case

Related tags: Pleading

Anheuser-Busch lawyers have failed to KO a lawsuit brought by US consumers who claim the company misled them into buying Beck’s by ‘deceptive conduct’ that suggested the beer was still brewed in Germany.

In 2012 ABI moved production of Beck’s sold on the US market from Bremen, Germany – where it has been brewed since 1873 – to St. Louis, Missouri.

ABI claims it is transparent in flagging-up this production shift – since packaging has ‘Product of the USA’ disclaimers, but Francisco Rene Marty et al. accuse the brewer of “deceptive conduct”​ – claiming this statement is obscured while other phrases suggest the beer is a German import.

The plaintiffs first filed their suit last on October 9 last year, and complain that – as consumers in Florida, California and New York – they paid a higher price for what they thought was an export beer but was, in fact, a domestic brew.

In an amended complaint filed on March 31, Marty et al. said they believed they were buying an imported German beer brewed with native ingredients according to that nation’s requirements, but were actually buying a beer brewed in St.Louis with US ingredients.

Paying a premium for Beck’s, brewed in the USA…

“Many breweries in the US and Europe are located in certain areas solely because the water in those regions yields a higher quality beer,”​ Marty et al. state in their amended complaint.

“As a result, consumers pay higher prices for imported beer than similar beers that are brewed domestically,”​ they add.

“As a result of these unfair and deceptive practices, defendant has collected millions of dollars from the sale of Beck’s beer that it would not have otherwise earned,”​ the plaintiffs claim.

The plaintiffs say they paid a premium for Beck’s when they could have instead bought other, less expensive domestic beers instead, while they also lost the chance to buy other “truly imported” ​beers.

On September 5, US magistrate judge John O’Sullivan ruled in the US District Court, Southern District of Florida that the plaintiffs’ lawyers had successfully pleaded their case such that unjust enrichment and consumer protection violation claims can proceed.

‘We’re pleased the court has seen the merits of our claims’ – Lawyer for plaintiffs

Tucker Ronzetti, who heads up Kozyak, Tropin & Throckmorton’s commercial and complex litigation department, is representing the plaintiffs in this case, and he told BeverageDaily.com today: “We are pleased that the court has seen the merits of our claims, and we look forward to working to protect consumer’s rights as the case continues.”

However, O’Sullivan granted ABI’s motion to dismiss a claim for injunctive relief – which if successful could lead to an order forcing it to label and market Beck’s differently – because he said the plaintiffs did not have standing to allege future harm.

Marty et al. have until September 19 to file a second amended complaint that would seek to substantiate such a claim, on the basis of ‘curing a harm’ that US consumers currently suffer, although the case could proceed simply on the basis of the two claims O’Sullivan has allowed.

'We've always been transparent and informative': Anheuser-Busch

However, an ABI spokesman told this site: "The lawsuit is without merit and we will aggressively defend it. We have always been transparent and informative with beer drinkers and Beck’s plainly states ‘Product of the USA’ on the front of the primary packaging.

"We have been meticulously loyal to Beck’s origin. It’s a German recipe, brewed in accordance with Reinheitsgebot—the Germany Purity Law. Beck’s is brewed all over the world and U.S. brewing has been welcomed by our core consumers,"​ he added.

"This case is still in the early stages and we are confident we will defend our position and, ultimately, prevail,"​ the spokesman said.

The plaintiffs are upset by text claiming that Beck’s beer ‘Originated in Germany’, is of ‘German Quality’ and is ‘Brewed Under the German Purity Law of 1516 – although ABI has argued that none of these phrases implies that the beer is brewed in Germany.

Judge finds ‘Product of USA’ disclaimer tricky to read

Indeed, the brewer points to labelling that states: ‘Product of USA, Brauerei Beck & Co., St. Louis, MO’ on labels for bottles and cans, and similar wording on the brand’s cardboard carton packaging.

ABI also insists its labelling meets Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) rules.

However, Marty et al. complain that the ‘Product of USA’ disclaimer is far too small to read, while metallic white print on a metallic silver background makes this even more difficult, and text is further obscured once bottles and cans are packed into cartons.

Judge O’Sullivan agreed, writing that he personally found the ‘Product of USA’ disclaimer on cans and bottles difficult to read and found a “discernible difference in legibility” ​between ‘Product of USA’ as it appears on the actual product and the same disclaimer as approved by the TTB.

Judge says ‘German quality’ claim no mere puff

Moreover, the judge said those who bought Beck’s had to open cartons of 12-pack bottles or cans, or lift bottles out of six-pack cartons to read the disclaimer, something that reasonable consumers should not have to do under US law.

The judge also said that mention of brewing in ‘St.Louis, MO’ on bottles/cans and cartons may not be sufficiently descriptive to alert consumers as to where the beer was brewed; moreover, on cartons it is printed on the underside, where, he said, no reasonable person should have to look.

O’Sullivan went further, stating that he could not agree with ABI that the 1516 brewing law reference was accurate – especially given other statements by the brand and ABIs “overall marketing campaign and its efforts to maintain Beck’s brand identity as a German beer”.

Finally, the judge said, he did not agree with ABI that the ‘German quality’ claim was ‘mere puffery’, since this and other statements could lead a reasonable consumer to believe Beck’s was imported and brewed in Germany.

We were awaiting a comment from ABI at the time of writing.

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