Meet the man taking on big fast food and candy brands for allegedly stiffing customers

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Meet the man taking on big fast food and candy brands for allegedly stiffing customers

Anthony Russo remembers when US consumer confidence in big brands was high—50 years ago. Now, he says, consumers are wary of big brands in an age of ever-rising corporate greed, and social media has empowered them to stand up for themselves. That’s part of the reason why the Florida-based lawyer of The Russo Law Firm says he gets at least 100 calls every month from people who want to sue such companies, namely fast-food giants, for false advertising.

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Russo has taken on a handful of such cases in the last two years against McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Arby’s, Burger King, and Taco Bell for putting less meat in people’s burgers, sandwiches, and tacos than is advertised.

“Trying to pull the proverbial wool over the eyes of the consumers, there’s very little tolerance for that,” Russo told Quartz. He says that in his 30 years as a consumer justice advocate, his goal has been “leveling the playing field for the average Joe consumer versus the big bad corporate mongrel company.”

This month, his client Cynthia Kelly sued Hershey for $5 million for not putting the “cute” face carvings on its Reese’s Halloween-themed peanut butter pumpkin cups. The pumpkins never had the faces to begin with, but over the years Hershey changed its advertisements to depict the pumpkins as jack-o-lanterns with eyes and a smile.

Previous Reese’s peanut butter pumpkin packaging

Current Reese’s peanut butter pumpkin packaging.

The complaint filed in a federal court in Florida argues that Hershey violated the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act, because it “marketed and advertised the Products in a deceptive, false and misleading manner by using photographs of the Products that are materially inaccurate.”

Hershey hasn’t publicly commented on the lawsuit, saying it doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

‘Leading the charge’

False advertising lawsuits such as these have surged in recent years, with 200 class action suits filed every year between 2020 and 2022—mainly in the food and beverage sector, according to QSR Magazine. In 2023, CNN credited Russo with leading the charge” in this arena.

Russo has appeared on NPR, Good Morning America, and other shows and outlets to talk about what he sees as greedy corporations taking advantage of customers. His cases have garnered both high-fives and eyerolls.

On Reddit, where the suits have been debated at length, one user wrote in vehement support of the Taco Bell suit, “ So tired of the sh— quality items from fast food places that aren’t even close to what’s advertised. Put some f—ing meat on my taco/burrito.”

But a number of Reddit users ragged on Kelly’s case against Hershey, calling it “maximum pettiness” and “really dumb.”

Still, others on the social media platform commended her—and hence, Russo—for taking a stand against such a big brand, remarking on their own experiences of companies cutting corners with products.

One user noted how their “chocolate bars have become smaller,” referencing the very real issue of “shrinkflation” — in which companies have reduced the sizes and quantities of their products to avoid hiking prices amid inflation. Russo agreed that shrinkflation has widened the chasm between the products companies advertise and the products consumers actually get.

But Russo, ever the cynic when it comes to large corporations, thinks even easing inflation won’t change the behavior of companies.

“With the type of corporations that are out there in today’s society… it’s squeeze, squeeze, squeeze every bit of profit that we can,” he said.

To determine whether to take cases, Russo uses “just a good old fashioned eye test.”

“We get plenty of calls where someone’s like, [this product] looks a little smaller than it is, and we don’t see it… as egregious enough.”

His cases have had mixed success. A judge ruled that Burger King must face the class action brought against it by Russo’s client — a major win for the lawyer. But only two months later, Russo took a blow when the McDonald’s and Wendy’s lawsuits were dismissed. Other cases are ongoing.

A timeline of the lawsuits

2022

📁 March: Plaintiffs from Florida and New York represented by Russo sue Burger King for allegedly exaggerating the amount of beef in its Whoppers, drawing the attention of local news outlets from Toledo, Ohio, Memphis, Tennessee as well as national and international journalists.

📁 May: Russo’s client Justin Chimienti of New York sues Wendy’s and McDonald’s for overstating the amount of beef in their burgers. The case garners attention from the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, local media, and Quartz.

2023

📁 July: Russo represents Frank Siragusa of New York in a lawsuit against Taco Bell for misrepresenting the amount of beef in its Crunchwraps. Siragusa seeks $5 million in damages or more.

✅ August: A federal judge in Miami strikes down Burger King’s bid to dismiss the lawsuit about its Whopper sizes. At this point, plaintiffs from 10 other states including Illinois, California, Mississippi, and Connecticut have joined the class action.

📁 September: Joseph Alongis, represented by Russo (of course), sues Arby’s for misleading consumers about how much meat is in its Roast Beef, Beef ‘N Cheddar, and Smokehouse Brisket sandwiches.

⛔️ October: A federal judge in New York dismisses the lawsuit against Wendy’s and McDonald’s

2024

📁 January: Cynthia Kelly sues Hershey.

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