Q&Amp;A: Behind The Lawsuit

Some mornings, when Meredith Berkman's 2-year-old daughter, Noa, was at the breakfast table, she would shout, "Booty! Booty!" Occasionally, the health-conscious Manhattan mother would give in. After all, if Mom enjoyed the low-fat snack food Pirate's Booty once in a while, why couldn't little Noa?

For years, consumers noshed guilt-free on the delicious treat, which was advertised as containing a minuscule 2.5 grams of fat per serving. Then last fall, a savvy Good Housekeeping Institute dietitian tested a few batches and found that the fat content was more than three times what the label claimed. The makers of Pirate's Booty called it a manufacturing problem, recalled the old bags and corrected the label.

But Berkman, a New York Newsday contributing writer, wasn't buying it. A few weeks ago, she filed a class-action suit against Robert's American Gourmet for $50 million-all rewards will go to charity-saying the snack's hidden fat caused her "weight gain ... mental anguish, outrage and indignation." She did it to make a point. "The specifics in this case are about fat content," says Berkman, the lead plaintiff. "But it's not really about fat content, it's about truth in labeling."

Still, as word has spread about her suit, some couldn't help but find humor in it. Jay Leno joked on-air, "If the snack you're eating contains the word 'booty,' you're probably not going to be losing much weight." Yet Berkman remains confident of the suit's larger importance. "It's a really serious issue," she says. Berkman and her attorney haven't heard from Robert's American Gourmet, which has two weeks left to file a response. Here, Berkman takes a few questions from NEWSWEEK's B. J. Sigesmund.

NEWSWEEK: First, for those unfamiliar with the situation, please explain why you have brought a suit against the makers of Pirate's Booty.

Meredith Berkman: I am outraged as a consumer and a mother that a company is not telling the truth. I want to believe that what I give my child is what it says it is.

You've said that any monetary reward will go to charity. Also, there were reasons your lawyer chose to sue for $50 million. Can you explain?

In a class-action suit, lawyers choose a number that is large enough to act as a ceiling on awards for an entire potential class of plaintiffs. So it's not about $50 million for any one person, and certainly not for me.

During this process, have you learned if anyone actually polices these labels? Otherwise, couldn't any company print anything they want on a label?

You'd have to ask the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] that question. But I do know that the FDA has limited resources and limited time to go and make sure every single label is correct. An April 2001 FDA study showed that often there are discrepancies between what's on the label and what's in the product. It's very hard to police that. Obviously, many companies are honest about it, but not all of them. Pirate's Booty is an example of that.

The makers of Pirate's Booty said that a manufacturing problem caused the slip.

I choose not to believe them, and I also know this company is a repeat offender. They had earlier [in January 2000] received a warning letter from the FDA about a couple of other products, including one called Fruity Booty. They were promoting it as if it were a fruit product when it was mostly, according to the FDA, rice and corn. They've done this before, and this time they need to be held accountable. That's what's most important for me.

You want this suit to serve as a warning to other companies.

Yes. This suit is really about truth in labeling. For example, I have a friend whose son has a deadly peanut allergy. Millions of people in this country have severe food allergies, and 200 people a year die from them. My friend spends all of her time carefully reading labels. If a company makes a mistake, or worse, lies about something, it could have disastrous consequences for her. To me, this is the larger context and the more important way of looking at the story.

Let's talk a little bit about the media coverage over the last few weeks. Has it been off-target?

No. I would never say that. People who have read my quotes about the suit or people who saw me speak about it on the "Today" show or on other TV venues and radio, those people understand it's a really serious issue. And I've gotten overwhelmingly positive support from people who understand that.

How did it feel to have your lawsuit joked about by Jay Leno?

People who didn't hear the full story, who didn't hear me talk about it and who didn't have it put in its proper context, might have thought it was something funny. And yes, some people have only heard the quick sound bite and may have missed the point.

Why do you think this lawsuit has piqued the interest of the public?

There's a real trend [lately] with consumers holding companies accountable. This is not the only suit that's targeting the food industry for this kind of problem right now. McDonald's settled back in March a class-action lawsuit related to french fries that were supposed to have been fried in vegetable oil when in fact, there was some level of beef [flavoring]. That was a $10 million settlement. Wonder Bread recently had to settle a claim filed by the [Federal Trade Commission] accusing them of unsubstantiated claims in their advertising about how their calcium-enriched product basically would make your child smart ... It's a moment when the food industry is being taken to task for what they've been doing.

You've received calls from media outlets all over the world. As a journalist yourself, you've obviously been on the aggressive end of those kinds of calls for years. What was it like to receive them?

As I said in my column [published in New York Newsday on April 17], that first weekend when the story broke, my husband was walking around our apartment, shaking his head, saying, "I'm so glad you kept your own last name."

Did this experience teach you anything about the media that you didn't know before?

No. It did take me by surprise, but I understand why there was a lot of attention focused on this.

Did you ever think twice before filing this suit? Journalists don't often become part of class-action suits like this.

I'm a columnist. And I very often write about my own life. So I didn't really look at it that way.

Have you stopped eating Pirate's Booty?

Yes, I have. As soon as I discovered they were lying about the fat content, I did stop eating it. And I don't want to give it to my child.

Do you have any regrets?

Not at all. I feel very strongly about truth in labeling. I feel the specifics of this case are not as important as the larger context. In no way do I regret having a chance to bring attention to the problem.