This Long Island lawyer is fed up.
Spencer Sheehan, a lawyer from Great Neck, said he has filed nearly 100 lawsuits pending against companies that he alleges falsely advertise their products as "vanilla." Sheehan has filed various suits in four U.S. states on behalf of consumers who he says have allegedly been deceived when buying products like milk, cake mix, or yogurt, to name a few.
“Just because it says vanilla, doesn't mean it is vanilla," Sheehan told Inside Edition Digital. "That only describes the way the product tastes. It's not real vanilla."
The issue is that many products are labeled "vanilla," but they are not made exclusively with vanilla beans, Sheehan asserts.
The Food and Drug Administration regulates how companies can label their products. However, Sheehan argues that companies are bending the rules.
Sheehan has requested $500 million overall in damages concerning the labeling of products as "vanilla" in New York, Wisconsin, California and New Jersey. The standard figure is $5 million for each case –– "it's just a placeholder," he said. "I will likely not be winning $500 million. And that's not the point."
Sheehan added that there are several cases where the money isn't the goal –– but they are requesting that products are more accurately labeled.
In each of his suits, Sheehan contends that the vanilla flavor is not from the vanilla bean, but comes from other ingredients included in the products labeled vanilla.
In a lawsuit filed last Friday against Wegman's Food Markets, Sheehan alleges that its generic vanilla cake mix product is deceptive. "It is misleading to describe a vanilla-flavored food as 'naturally flavored' where it contains vanillin from non-vanilla sources because consumers will understand this to mean it is flavored with natural vanilla, from the vanilla bean," the lawsuit said.
The suit alleges that the product is "not flavored mainly from vanilla and has no vanilla, or at most, a de minimis, or trace amount of vanilla."
The suit goes on, claiming that the product deems it contains "no artificial flavors," despite main ingredients including "ethyl vanillin, vanillin, and piperonal," the lawsuit said –– adding that they are all "artificial flavors."
For Sheehan, the products are endless. "We're talking yogurt, milk, dairy, ice cream, tea," he said –– and the list goes on. “Nobody looks twice."
In another suit filed last Sunday against Nestlé, Sheehan alleges that the company's vanilla-flavored almond milk creamer, which labels itself "naturally flavored," is implying that it "is naturally flavored with vanilla, even though the flavor is not derived from vanilla beans."
The suit alleges that the product is instead "flavored mainly from vanillin and from non-vanilla sources and, as a result, does not taste like vanilla."
"The flavor industry is already a mystery," vanilla specialist Dr. Daphna Havkin-Frenkel told Inside Edition Digital. "The vanilla industry in the hands of very few companies."
Havkin-Frenkel holds a Ph.D. in food sciences and has been working in the field for 17 years. In the past, she has even taught a course at Rutger's University dedicated solely to the ingredient. She is currently lending her expertise to Sheehan's cases.
"We have a crisis because these companies do what they want," she said.
Vanilla is expensive. As a way to be more affordable, products are frequently made with other synthetic ingredients. The product "Vanillin" is easier to produce than natural vanilla "simply because you have to grow natural vanilla," Havkin-Frenkel said.
Not to mention, vanilla does not grow in the United States. In 2018, the U.S. was the world's top importer, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity. One of the world's largest exporters is Madagascar, an island country off of Eastern Africa.
"It’s not fair. We don’t have the vanilla police," she said. "It’s important to the public because people have the right to know what they’re eating."
In a statement to Inside Edition Digital, Nestlé wrote, "This lawsuit is part of a recent wave of frivolous class actions filed against the manufacturers of various vanilla food products. Our Coffee-mate products are labeled in compliance with the law and provide consumers the information they need to make informed purchasing decisions. We look forward to vigorously defending ourselves in court."
Wegman's did not respond to Inside Edition Digital's requests for comment. The class-action status of the cases Sheehan is handling has not yet been decided. Thus far, Sheehan has settled one case in July against Califia Farms in the U.S. Southern District of New York as a class-action. The case won $750,000 in reimbursements and expenses with an additional $5,000 awarded to each of the six plaintiffs, according to court documents.
There have been at least 10 lawsuits that were settled privately, based on court documents obtained by Inside Edition Digital.
Sheehan's said his work has at times left him subject to criticism.
“There are many critics," Sheehan said. "With anything you do, there are critics.”
But it won't stop him from pursuing the cases he said he believes need to be pursued.
"The goal is to keep going," he said.