Earlier this year, General Mills added language to its website that stated consumers agreed to give up the right to sue by accepting certain small benefits from the company. According to the quietly introduced terms, consumers forfeited their rights in exchange for even the most minor and ambiguous benefits, including the following:
Downloading a coupon to save a few cents on a product purchase
Liking the company or a General Mills’ product on Facebook
Joining a social media campaign
Entering a General Mills-sponsored sweepstakes, drawing or contest
Signing up for email alerts
Buying a General Mills product
The terms stated that by taking any of these actions, the consumer agreed to binding arbitration as a method of dispute resolution. The company, thus, could avoid expensive, public litigation. In addition, consumers were unable to file a class action lawsuit, which traditionally gives plaintiffs more equal power in the courts.
The consumer advocacy group Public Citizen explains that many companies employ the forced arbitration provisions in contracts with their customers. Chances are that if you have a telephone, cable, Internet, credit cards, a checking account, electronics and other products and services, you are subject to forced arbitration to resolve certain disputes. These contracts are inherently skewed because you have no means of negotiating with the lawyers of multinational, multi-billion dollar companies. By entering into a commercial relationship with the company, you have to agree to whatever terms it unilaterally decides.
However unfair the arbitration clauses might be in a mobile phone or a credit card contract, the stakes are much higher when it comes to food. In an interview for a New York Times article, the Public Citizen attorney pointed out, “When you’re talking about food, you’re also talking about things that can kill people.” You might lose money if your bank makes a mistake. But you could lose your life if a food manufacturer makes an error. For example, an improperly labeled package that contains peanuts, milk, soy or gluten could cause a severe allergic reaction in certain consumers. Or, contaminated food could carry salmonella, campylobacter, listeria or another foodborne pathogen.