27th Feb 2024

Danish pork firm sued for 'greenwashing' in legal first

  • With a lack of specific rules against so-called 'greenwashing', lawsuits based on environmental claims have little legal precedent (Photo: michael davis-burchat)
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Denmark witnessed this week its first greenwashing litigation, against pork-producer Danish Crown A/S, in what appears to be the first lawsuit against a European food producer over climate claims.

During the first hearing of the lawsuit this week, Denmark's Western High Court was called upon to determine whether the company wrongfully placed climate claims on its pork meat label and misled consumers.

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The case was initiated in May 2021 by the Vegetarian Society of Denmark (DVF) and climate movement Klimabevægelsen, who believed that the meat company breached the Danish Marketing Act by misleadingly branding its product as "more climate-friendly than you think".

"The lawsuit is the first of its kind and can therefore establish an important legal precedent in the field of greenwashing of food," said Marc Malmbak Stounberg, attorney from Kontra Lawyers, one of the two lawyers representing the green organisations in the case.

The carbon footprint of meat and dairy production is extremely high.

According to the Danish Crown, the "climate-controlled" pig labels were based on their reduced greenhouse gas emissions (by 25 percent since 2005) — but included the company's intention to achieve climate emissions reductions by 2030. 

But this intention could be met solely if all Danish Crown's pork farmers had followed the company's suggested measures to reduce their emissions — but no consequences were imposed on farmers who did not live up to the company's checks over their implementation.

Misleading climate claims

Research by two Danish newspapers revealed that the company's life-cycle assessment (LCA) to determine how Danish Crown's pigs were more climate-friendly was heavily-dictated by company members rather than Aarhus University — the institution that was requested to deliver the LCA.

According to DVF's director Rune-Christoffer Dragsdahl, the climate labels placed on the meat packaging were misleading consumers.

"You give the general public and politicians the idea that the climate is under control," he said, adding that such messaging can have consequences in terms of inhibiting the understanding of the actual climate situation.

Dragsdahl, who testified in the trial this week was asked by lawyers of company on the degree of certainty of DVF's own labelling scheme, called "Det Grønne Hjerte" (The Green Heart), which certifies Danish companies.

"In our certification, if a company doesn't follow it, when they are checked there are consequences for them," he said.

The defendent, the Danish Crown compnay, could not swear the same in front of the court. The company's former director Preben Sunke, of the nine witnesses called by the pig producers, unexpectedly admitted on the same day that the company could not guarantee that all the pork that received the "climate-controlled" label could actually come from a pig producer who had taken climate measures.

And on Wednesday (22 November), Danish Crown's director of sustainability admitted that the soy feed given to animals is not all deforestation-free, lowering the chances of raising animals with high environmental standards.

Consumers' safety

Consumer associations have highlighted that many such 'eco' labels are based on weak verification systems, and loose regulations enabling large-scale greenwashing, including on food products.

"The current legislation does not allow for such claims, but the rules are not so explicit. And that's why a lot of companies are using those claims," said Patrycja Gautier, team leader for consumer rights at the European consumers' association BEUC.

In 2023 the EU Commission worked to build a framework to better protect consumers, under the consumer package, with a series of measures with more explicit language against greenwashing, which Gautier said could help send a clear signal to the market.

However, the impending legislation is slated to take effect only in 2026.

With the lack of explicit rules against greenwashing within current legislation, at least up to now, companies can continue marketing their products with loose regulations, while lawsuits based on green claims would have little legal precedent to refer to.

BEUC's Gautier said that, currently, many companies across different sectors are starting to withdraw climate claims because they've noticed the rise in the number of court cases across the world.

But whether the meat company is found guilty due to its alleged greenwashing labels, the judgment could have a deterrent effect against food companies practising similar strategies.

Malback Stounberg said that, at the Danish level, the judgment will have direct and immediate consequences for the whole sector, while it will be up to other European courts that analyse similar cases, and whether to follow the Danish interpretation of European law.

Dragsdahl said that if they lose, DVF and Klimaebevegelse would appeal to the Danish Supreme Court, and eventually at the European level.

Despite Sunke' admitting the company's label was not strictly regulated, there is no certainty his testimony will be decisive for the verdict.

The process' second hearing will be held in December, with the trial's result expected in January 2024. 

Author bio

Daniela De Lorenzo is a freelance journalist covering agriculture policy, the food industry and the Nordics.


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