The health benefits of antioxidant-rich chocolate have received much recognition in recent years. Positive findings from a number of studies appear to be making an impact on consumers, as is suggested by increased sales of chocolate-containing dairy foods.

The dairy industry has made great strides toward positioning milk and dairy-based food products as key components in the wellness efforts of American consumers.

Processors have gone through much time and expense to pursue scientific research supporting health claims that dairy foods are beneficial to weight management, gut health, immunity and other wellness goals.  But you wouldn’t know that by the way some of the more sticky-fingered members of the legal community have assailed processors’ on-package health claims.

The latest: Last month, Dannon announced the settlement of a class-action lawsuit filed in January 2008 challenging the advertising for its wildly successful Activia and DanActive products. As you probably know, Activia – one of the most successful product launches in history – was designed for intestinal regulation, while DanActive aims to boost immunity.

Under the settlement, Dannon will tweak its packaging and marketing to, among other things, increase the visibility of the scientific names of the unique strains of probiotics that are in each of these products. Dannon also agreed to create a fund of up to $35 million to reimburse disgruntled consumers who sign onto the class action. Of course, you know it was the cash that the plaintiffs were after from the start.

As part of the deal, Dannon admits no wrongdoing. In fact, a company spokesman says the company opted to settle the case to, understandably, avoid the hassle and expense of litigation, and resume its full focus on product development.

For its part, an attorney with the law firm that concocted the lawsuit – and they’re coming after Yoplait next – had this to say: “Marketers had better beware of what they say in their marketing and they better back up their claims before they say those things to the public. The days of fast and loose ad claims should be coming to an end soon.”

Oh, please. The science behind the health claims for dairy products has been anything but fast and loose. From Zemel on down, it’s been deliberately careful and based on years of scientific research to ensure lasting benefits to the industry and its consumers.

(In the spirit of full disclosure, I have been consuming DanActive for nearly a year and a half, and my brushes with illness have been greatly diminished in that time.)

I’m not sure what saddens me more, the fact that class-action lawsuits like these – which amount to legalized extortion – are allowed to take place, or that Dannon chose not to defend itself. To me, the latter has more potentially damaging and long-lasting impact to the industry as a whole. Companies with vast resources like Dannon set the tone for the industry, leading the way for such research. If deep-pocketed Dannon can’t defend the claims it avows are rock-solid, how can smaller processors be expected to stake their claim in the wellness arena without being taken to the cleaners?

Speaking of innovation …

This month heralds the return of Worldwide Food Expo, the biennial bacchanal at Chicago’s McCormick Place.

The folks at IDFA have pumped up efforts to make the show even more relevant and important to your business, with the launch of a sustainability pavilion, along with exhibits and sessions focusing on food safety, consumer trends and product development. All that, plus 900 exhibitor booths and more should give you plenty to chew on during the four-day show.

Check out our show preview, starting on page 54, for a summary of events, exhibitor list and map of McCormick Place’s mammoth South Hall, home to the dairy and beverage side of the show.

See you there!