In what may be the first lawsuit of its kind in the country, the family of a 14-year-old Amherst girl is claiming her diabetes is linked to high fructose corn syrup.
The family is suing six manufacturers of high fructose corn syrup in U.S. District Court in Buffalo and seeking $5 million in damages.
The suit, filed earlier this week, claims the girl was never warned about the risks of high fructose corn syrup, a common ingredient in many foods, despite a well-documented link with diabetes.
“They know this stuff has adverse consequences,” J. Michael Hayes, a lawyer for the family, said of the manufacturers. “And if there’s harm associated with it, you should get a warning.”
Hayes thinks that high fructose corn syrup could become the next big product liability target and that “solid science” supports his claim of a link to diabetes.
The suit follows the release late last year of a University of Southern California study that found a greater rate of diabetes in countries with a high level of fructose corn syrup in their food.
The young girl’s suit prompted a strong response from the trade association representing corn syrup makers. The group claims the suit is filled with false and unsubstantiated claims, and indicated its members will vigorously fight the allegations.
“The plaintiff is seeking to profit by making claims that are contradicted by solid, credible research,” John Bode, president of the Corn Refiners Association, said in a statement. “This lawsuit will confuse consumers and mislead them about how to make the right choices for a healthy diet.”
Corn syrup makers maintain their product is safe and no different, when it comes to health risks, than common sweeteners such as sugar and honey.
The suit does not identify the family or girl suing the manufacturers but says she was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes when she was 12.
“We’re sort of ahead of the game,” Hayes said of the suit. “But there’s a definite connection between high fructose corn syrup and diabetes. This is not a frivolous, shoot-from-the-hip kind of thing.”
The suit comes at a time when the debate over sweeteners and their role in the nation’s health is escalating.
The Southern California study, released last November, helped fuel that debate by claiming type 2 diabetes occurred 20 percent more often in countries where high fructose corn syrup was commonly used as compared with countries where it was used rarely, if ever.
The study stopped well short, however, of suggesting that high fructose corn syrup was the only dietary factor in individuals getting diabetes.
“The members of the CRA stand by the safety of their ingredient,” Bode, head of the Corn Refiners, said in his statement, “and will vigorously defend themselves against the false allegations made in this lawsuit.”
The manufacturers named as defendants are Archer-Daniels-Midland Co., Cargill Inc., Ingredion Inc., Penford Products Co., Tate & Lyle Ingredients Americas and Roquette America Inc.
Hayes’ suit also came on the heels of another legal battle, this one in Los Angeles, between corn syrup manufacturers and the makers of natural sugar.
Sugar farmers claim there are vast differences between sugar and corn syrup and, in their suit, accuse syrup makers of trying to hide the health effects of their product through false advertising.
Their suit specifically mentions diabetes and obesity, a condition that affects one out of every three adults and about 17 percent of all children in the U.S.
In a related development, the American Medical Association decided this week that obesity should be classified as a disease, an action that means 90 million Americans, adults and children, have a medical condition requiring treatment.