In early July, the Scotch Whisky Association filed a formal complaint in the U.S. District Court of Delaware against a Virginia-based distillery, claiming that the alcohol manufacturer was using deceptive advertising to trick consumers about the origin of its products. According to court filings, the plaintiff alleges that The Virginia Distillery Company falsely described its Virginia-Highland Whiskey as a "whisky from Scotland married with Virginia whisky." Members of the SWA argue that this description suggests that the product contains whiskey that originated from Scotland.
The issue with region-based advertising claims
Under current U.S. regulations that govern the use of country-of-origin claims, including terms like "highland" and "scotch" on domestically sourced food and beverage items is prohibited, as the Food and Drug Administration believes these descriptors could reasonably mislead consumers about the authenticity of the product. These types of lawsuits have been picking up steam over the past few years, though most have been focused on curbing "all natural" claims on products that contain artificial ingredients.
In response to the lawsuit, The Virginia Distillery Co. LLC released a public statement on its website:
"Our independent distillery launched the Virginia-Highland Whisky series over three years ago. Our production process pays tribute to both old world and new world techniques while taking advantage of our location and the climate provided by Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains," said Gareth Moore, CEO of The Virginia Distillery Co. "Our label clearly indicates the source of our whisky, stating 'Whisky from Scotland, Married with Virginia Whisky,' and we have always been upfront in descriptions to our customers."
Despite the disclaimers present on the distillery's whiskey product, the SWA argues that the inclusion of region-based terms like "highland" represents a clear violation of the FDA's regulations. In defense of his labeling practices, Moore pointed out that his marketing team took all appropriate steps to design the product label in conjunction with federal guidelines from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. The SWA is requesting court officials to compel The Virginia Distillery Co. recall all whiskey products that contain "scotch" and "highland" on their labels or packaging.
How the lawsuit impacts other food and beverage producers
This sort of litigation will likely become more common as the public becomes increasingly interested in transparent product labeling and ethical marketing practices, which is why food and beverage manufacturers must keep pace with existing and emerging regulations. The best way to stay ahead of potential legal issues is to ensure your labeling infrastructure is reliable, flexible and efficient.