Popular protein shake has unhealthy levels of lead, a new lawsuit claims

BellRing Brands is accused in a new lawsuit of failing to monitor lead levels in its Premier Protein health shakes and exposing consumers to potentially dangerous levels of the contaminant, which is linked to cancer and birth defects.

Three users of healthy smoothies are suing BellRing (ticker: BRBR), a spin-off of food conglomerate Post Holdings, and its subsidiary Premier Nutrition Co. over what they claim was a misrepresentation of the healthiness of the products due to levels of lead found in beverages through independent laboratory testing. The lawsuit was filed on Wednesday by San Diego-based law firm Fitzgerald Joseph in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California.

The potential class action lawsuit, which upholds false advertising, unjust enrichment and other claims, seeks unspecified damages.

BellRing and Premier knew or should have known that they owed consumers a duty of care to properly test Premier Protein products, the attorneys wrote in the complaint. If they had, they would have known that Premier Protein products contain significant levels of lead.

The attorneys also filed a notice of the charges with the California Attorney General’s office, a precursor to a lawsuit under the state’s Toxic Chemicals Act, known as Proposition 65.

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BellRing did not immediately respond to messages left before business hours on Thursday.

The lab tests cited in the lawsuit were funded by an investor who took a short position in BellRing stock after reviewing the results of those tests, according to the investor, who asked not to be identified. The source and funding of the findings were not mentioned in the Proposition 65 lawsuit or notice.

BellRing was spun off from Post into a separate publicly traded company in 2019. Its shares closed Wednesday at $35.77, down about 6% from last week’s all-time high. There was little change in pre-market trading on Thursday morning.

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All 13 analysts covering the company have Buy or Overweight ratings on the stock, according to FactSet, with an average price target of $42.60.

While the BellRings brands also include Dymatize bodybuilding powder drink and PowerBar energy snacks, Premier protein shakes are its dominant product, accounting for 81% of net sales for the year ended September 30, 2022.

In 2019, months before the BellRings spinoff, Premier accepted a $9 million settlement in a class action lawsuit that it overstated the amount of protein in its shakes and bars.

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BellRing was also ordered to pay New York customers $12.9 million of its Joint Juice product in 2022 after a jury found it made false and misleading comments in its marketing of the supplemental drink. That ruling is being appealed as part of a larger litigation involving additional plaintiffs in other states.

A number of Premier Protein shakes were also recalled last year along with dozens of products from several manufacturers, including Oatley and Organic Valley, due to potential microbial contamination.

In the lawsuit filed Wednesday, the attorneys cite lab results showing lead levels in individual servings of six different Premier Protein shakes and powders exceed guidelines that would require special notification requirements in California, where two of the plaintiffs reside.

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California Proposition 65 establishes 0.5 micrograms of lead as the maximum allowable daily dosage of the substance to avoid the risk of birth defects. Products with more than that dose must carry a warning label.

The chocolate, vanilla, caramel and latte milkshakes tested by two separate, unidentified labs showed lead levels as low as 1.39 micrograms, according to the complaint. The vanilla and chocolate protein powders contained 0.53 micrograms and 0.67 micrograms per serving.

Contaminants like lead can enter foods if they’re present in the environment where their ingredients are grown, either naturally or through past pollution, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

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The lawsuit also cited passages from the Premiers website that the lawyers encourage users to consume the shakes multiple times a day, which the lawyers said would further increase daily doses of lead.

Other passages on the website have suggested that consumers use the smoothies as an ingredient in recipes or serve them to children, such as for an after-school snack or in cereal.

Four-year-olds can reap the benefits of protein shakes to supplement their normal diet, reads a passage from the website. What child can say no to a chocolate milkshake?!

The plaintiffs say in the lawsuit that they purchased Premier shakes believing they were healthy and nutritious, and that they were harmed by the company’s alleged failure to inform them that the products were in fact potentially harmful to their health.

The plaintiffs were looking for healthy and nutritious options and believed that’s what they were getting, the lawyers wrote. The plaintiffs allegedly avoided any Premier Protein product they knew contained dangerous levels of toxic heavy metals.

Email Jacob Adelman at jacob.adelman@barrons.com

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