LOS ANGELES – The sugar and corn industries ended their bitter billion-dollar dispute over sweeteners Friday in a secret out-of-court settlement.
The deal midway through a trial in Los Angeles federal court put an end to dueling lawsuits that pitted sugar processors against the makers of high fructose corn syrup over losses each side blamed on efforts by their rival to win over consumers.
Sugar processors were seeking $1.5 billion in a false-advertising claim against corn refiners and agribusinesses giants Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill and other companies after they tried to rebrand their publicity-plagued product as “corn sugar.”
Western Sugar Cooperative and other sugar processors said they lost money when corn refiners launched a “sugar is sugar” ad campaign that stated, “Your body can’t tell the difference.”
Corn refiners and the companies countersued for $530 million, saying they lost that much after the sugar industry made false and misleading statements that included a comment that high-fructose corn syrup was as addictive as crack cocaine.
They blamed the sugar industry for being behind what they called “junk science” that associated the product with diabetes and obesity.
The archrivals sugarcoated their rancor in a settlement statement that announced their commitments to “practices that encourage safe and healthful use of their products, including moderation in the consumption of table sugar, high-fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners.”
Attorneys on both sides refused to discuss terms of Friday’s settlement or whether any money would be exchanged.
Eric Rose, a spokesman for the sugar processors, said they “achieved a satisfactory settlement of the disputes in the lawsuit.”
Big Sugar and Big Corn have battled in the marketplace since the 1970s when high-fructose corn syrup was introduced as a cheaper alternative to sugar.
The fortunes for corn began slipping when studies in the mid-2000s began connecting the product to such health problems as obesity.
Corn refiners launched the ad campaign to support its request before the Food and Drug Administration to change the name to “corn sugar.”
The FDA rejected the request in 2012, finding that sugar was a solid, dried and crystallized food, not a syrup.
Although some consumers passionately favor one product over the other, science has determined they are nearly identical and are metabolized the same way, said Roger A. Clemens, a University of Southern California research professor of pharmacology and pharmaceutical science.
Sugar is sucrose, which is half fructose, half glucose. High-fructose corn syrup is typically 55 percent fructose and 45 percent glucose.
The trial had presented a chance for jurors to weigh in on the vexing debate and side with one sweetener after years of dispute in the court of public opinion over the evils of both.
A big win by one side could have had a broader impact on the food industry, the law and advertising.
Attorney Dan Herling, who was not involved in the case but has handled suits alleging false or misleading labeling or advertising of foods, said a jury verdict could have provided a model for lawyers looking to take on foods with genetically modified or nonorganic ingredients.
“I would also imagine that people who come up with marketing campaigns would have to take a step back and say, if we do this not only how is the market going to react, but is it going to lead to a lawsuit,” Herling said.
Attorney Mark Lanier, who represented sugar processors, predicted before the trial that if he prevailed, other companies would the follow the likes of Hunt’s ketchup and Capri Sun juices and switch to sugar from high-fructose corn syrup.
“I think both sides will get massive PR out of the win or the loss,” he said. “Good PR or bad PR. Both sides have a lot hanging on it.”
The settlement essentially brings the case to a draw in the public eye.
The outcome was similar to one between the sugar industry and the makers of Splenda seven years ago.
Sugar processors alleged that McNeil Nutritionals engaged in misleading advertising for promoting the sweetener as a natural food product with the slogan “tastes like sugar because it’s made from sugar.”
Terms of that deal have never been disclosed.