The Federal Trade Commission Thursday filed a complaint in court against Gerber, alleging it falsely advertised that its Good Start Gentle Formula protects babies from allergies.
It says health claims made in the ads, on TV, online and print, were not FDA approved. Gerber counters that its product claims were within the law.
The FTC wants Gerber to stop making the claims and provide refunds to consumers, though a figure has not been set. A spokesman pointed out that the campaign is several years old and nationwide, so there could be a lot of consumers to refund.
The spokesman said the commission had tried to settle with Gerber, but was unsuccessful.
“Parents trusted Gerber to tell the truth about the health benefits of its formula, and the company’s ads failed to live up to that trust,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a statement. "“Gerber didn’t have evidence to back up its claim that Good Start Gentle formula reduces the risk of babies developing their parents’ allergies.”
The FTC took aim at the claim that the formula's use of whey proteins instead of cow's milk proteins would prevent or reduce the risk they would develop allergies.
FTC says that Gerber did not have the science to back up its claims, in violation of the FTC Act.
"In addition," the FTC said, "Gerber’s ads also misrepresent that Good Start Gentle has qualified or received approval for a Food and Drug Administration health claim. For example, some ads prominently featured a gold badge stating that Good Start Gentle is the '1st and Only' formula that “Meets FDA Qualified Health Claim.”
"We are disappointed with the FTC's decision to file a complaint against Gerber Products Company for its marketing of Gerber Good Start infant formula," said Kevin Goldberg, VP and general counsel for Nestlé Infant Nutrition. "We are defending our position because we believe we have met, and will continue to meet, all legal requirements to make these product claims.
"Extensive, peer-reviewed scientific evidence supports the role of 100% whey partially hydrolyzed infant formula in reducing the risk of atopic dermatitis, commonly known as baby eczema, in infants with a family history of allergy. Further, Gerber has been authorized by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to feature a qualified health claim based on this evidence.
"We believe the information conveyed in our marketing is important for parents who have children at risk for atopic dermatitis, the most common allergy in infancy."
The FTC acknowledged that Gerber in 2009 had sought permission from the FDA to connect the whey proteins with reduced risk of "one type" of allergy, atopic dermatitis, in infants, but says the FDA allowed that "narrow claim," only if Gerber qualified it to make clear there was little scientific evidence for the relationship.