False Advertising: Making a Federal Case out of Heinz Chili Sauce

Written by Jill Chapin. Posted in Opinion, Politics

Published on January 22, 2011 with 15 Comments

Caveat emptor: Heinz appears to be engaging in a practice of false advertising. The contents of its labeled "12 oz" Chili Sauce weighs just 8 oz.

By Jill Chapin

January 22, 2011

On Dec 31, I prepared an appetizer for a New Year’s Eve party that called for 8 ounces of chili sauce. I bought a Heinz 12 ounce bottle and proceeded to pour 8 ounces into a measuring cup, with the intention of saving the remaining 4 ounces for future use.

However, the entire bottle was only 8 ounces. I looked again at the bottle. It said Net Wt 12 ounces.

Hoping that this was just a one-time aberration or a labeling mistake, I called the 800 number on the bottle, and the person who took my call readily admitted that – yes, there are only 8 ounces in the 12 ounce bottle. Asking how they can get away with such a blatant misrepresentation – 33% less than stated – he went into some convoluted reasoning that feathers are lighter than liquid or something to that effect. Honestly, I stopped listening because I couldn’t wrap my brain around such an Orwellian explanation.

But to make certain I understood him, I asked, “So, if I had a recipe calling for 12 ounces of chili sauce, how many bottles of your 12 ounce chili sauce would I need?”

His answer: Two

I know that both Heinz and the federal government will have long rambling explanations for this anomaly, but we need to cut to the chase: Either Heinz broke the law and should be held financially accountable, or the law allows Heinz to deceive and the law should be changed.

There really is nothing else to say about this because labels are meant to inform, not confuse or dupe those who purchase products.

Normally, I would just vent with friends and move on. But Heinz’s open admission that they knowingly shortchange unsuspecting consumers unleashed a stubborn tenacity that drove me to keep asking questions just to see where it would lead. It was a long and winding road, which is why companies get away with cheating us; it’s just too exhausting and frustrating to pursue them.

But I tried anyway. After calling the 800 number on the bottle, (800 572-2823) I then called the Pennsylvania Better Business Bureau, (412 456-2700) where Heinz is manufactured, and got nothing more than an offer for me to file a complaint, but they have no power to make changes.

Ditto for the Allegheny County Fraud Hotline (412 350-4300)

The same for Heinz Customer Service (800 255-5750) They commiserated with me, saying that they have received other similar complaints, and that I could make a complaint too. But they had no answer for me when I asked why I would bother doing so when nothing came of the complaints previously made.

So, living in California, I called Senator Barbara Boxer’s San Francisco office (415 403-0100). They suggested I call the FTC (877 382-4357) I actually did make a complaint, although I am not optimistic that Heinz will begin putting 12 ounces of chili sauce into their 12 ounce bottles any time soon.

Her office also suggested I call the FDA (949 608-3530). I spoke to a well-informed, empathetic guy who explained that by filing a complaint with them, I would be literally making a federal case out of this incident. This I did.

He kindly allowed me to vent and at one point I was so frustrated, I suggested maybe my next call should be to John Kerry’s wife. He found that quite amusing.

Then I asked if I could notify a news outlet because I was getting a better understanding of why people do exposés – it’s because nothing is ever done in business or in government unless someone gets caught. I was told that I could call anyone I want. But a few major news organizations I contacted found it interesting but were not interested in reporting it. This was yet another disturbing reality in our inability to give voice to a very real consumer concern.

This infuriates me because it affects everyone who has ever bought less than what they thought they purchased. In these tough economic times, I’m wondering how much money has been bilked from already-stretched-thin paychecks.

If anyone feels they can make their voice heard in Washington, feel free to see what you can do to shine some light on this duplicitous measuring by Heinz. I only want what’s fair; I have no interest in becoming the Erin Brockovich of chili sauce.

Jill Chapin

Jill Chapin

Jill Chapin has been a guest writer and columnist in several Los Angeles area papers for over fifteen years. She has written a bilingual parenting book titled, "If You Have Kids, Then Be a Parent!" and a children's book entitled, "My Magic Bubble."

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