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Meet the lawyer who is driving the lawsuits against food and beverage companies

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Last month, it was the lawsuit over the strawberry in strawberry Pop-Tarts. Before that, suits over the fudge in Keebler cookies and Betty Crocker baking mixes. And before that, dozens of vanilla lawsuits over things like yogurt, ice cream and soy milk. All of this is part of a rise in lawsuits against food and beverage companies, a spike that has been driven almost single-handedly by one lawyer. Here's NPR's Becky Sullivan.

BECKY SULLIVAN, BYLINE: His name is Spencer Sheehan. In recent years, he's filed more than 400 lawsuits accusing companies of misleading consumers with claims on their advertising and packaging that he says don't hold up to scrutiny. He's filed suit over things like Hint of Lime Tostitos, pineapple and mango Vizzy Hard Seltzer and Snack Pack chocolate pudding. There are all sorts of FDA regulations about how companies are supposed to label and market their products. Sheehan says too often, they get away with breaking those rules.

SPENCER SHEEHAN: When something is regulated, there should be less space for them to weasel around.

SULLIVAN: Class-action lawsuits against food and beverage companies are up more than a thousand percent since 2008. That's thanks mostly to Sheehan. This year, he's on pace to file about three suits a week. His biggest target has been makers of vanilla-flavored products, for example, A&W Root Beer.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: A&W Root Beer is crafted with premium ingredients like aged vanilla.

SULLIVAN: Turns out A&W is not made with aged vanilla or much real vanilla at all. Instead, the sodas are made with a synthetic vanilla flavoring. So he sued.

BONNIE PATTEN: I think there is some merit to his work.

SULLIVAN: This is Bonnie Patten, executive director of a consumer advocacy group called Truth In Advertising. She says, though, she doesn't think class-action lawsuits are the best way to change things. For one, they usually end with a judge dismissing the case or with a settlement agreement. Companies often get away without changing much at all, and consumers end up with next to nothing, which Sheehan acknowledges.

SHEEHAN: In these types of cases, you know, the money that they get back is - they're not going to be able to retire over. But nonetheless, sometimes, people may get back $5, $10, $20.

SULLIVAN: Dozens of his cases this year have ended in what's called a voluntary dismissal, which usually means there was a settlement. Bonnie Patten says settlements can be lucrative for one party in particular.

PATTEN: Generally, the plaintiff's attorney will be taking home between 25 and 33%.

SULLIVAN: Ultimately, Sheehan and Patten both say they have the same goal. They want consumers to be misled less.

PATTEN: You know, who wants to be misled? Why isn't this standard that you've got to be upfront with consumers, that you need to tell them the truth?

SULLIVAN: Which means it's a good thing in her book.

Becky Sullivan, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.

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