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Minnesota company's lawsuit claims pepper giant is deceiving customers

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In the game of pepper sales, Winona-based Watkins says the industry leader is not playing with a full tin.

Watkins announced this week that it's suing McCormick, arguing that the Maryland-based company is deceiving customers.

McCormick has reduced the amount of pepper it puts into the tin containers that line grocery store shelves. Those containers, however, are the same size they've always been.

According to Watkins' lawsuit, “... as a result of McCormick’s blatantly misleading and deceptive use of traditional-sized, non-transparent metal tins with illegal slack-fill, retailers and consumers have been confused into believing the tins contain the same amount of ground black pepper.”

McCormick still makes small, medium, and large tins but each contains 25 percent less pepper than its predecessors.

The Winona Daily News reports McCormick says in a statement: “We followed industry standard procedures and were transparent about this change, clearly updating the net weight on packaging."

The website Consumerist has been collecting examples of manufacturers who have begun selling their products in smaller amounts as an alternative to raising prices – a practice they've dubbed "grocery shrink ray." McCormick is not at the top of their list.

George John, a marketing professor at the U of M's Carlson School of Management, tells the Star Tribune manufacturers have long preferred to cut back on product size rather than risk angering consumers by raising prices.

The Baltimore Business Journal reports a surge in the cost of pepper is behind McCormick's packaging change, with the company's CEO telling analysts the price has climbed 500 percent in five years.

The Star Tribune says numbers from a market researcher show McCormick with 43 percent of the U.S. market for black pepper, while its next closest competitor has a 9 percent share of the market.

The newspaper says Watkins, which started in 1868, is best known for its personal care products and food extracts but is trying to expand into the spice market.

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