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New York sues beef producer JBS for 'fraudulent' marketing around climate change

New York state prosecutors are trying to stop JBS from making "fraudulent and illegal" marketing claims about its climate efforts.
Matthew Stockman
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New York state prosecutors are trying to stop JBS from making "fraudulent and illegal" marketing claims about its climate efforts.

Updated February 29, 2024 at 5:59 PM ET

New York state Attorney General Letitia James sued beef producer JBS in state court for allegedly misleading the public about a pledge the company made to slash its climate pollution in the coming decade. Prosecutors said JBS continued making deceptive marketing claims even after a consumer watchdog group recommended the company stop advertising because it didn't have a strategy to achieve its climate target.

JBS is among hundreds of companies around the world that have promised to cut their greenhouse gas emissions to limit global warming. The Brazilian food maker said in 2021 that it would eliminate or offset all of the heat-trapping emissions from its operations and supply chains by 2040. "Agriculture can and must be part of the global climate solution," Gilberto Tomazoni, chief executive of JBS, said in a statement announcing the goal. "We believe through innovation, investment and collaboration, net zero is within our collective grasp."

But prosecutors in New York said that even if JBS had developed a plan, the company couldn't "feasibly" deliver on its climate commitment. The state said there aren't proven ways right now to zero out agriculture emissions at the scale of JBS's operations, and offsetting the company's emissions with things like carbon credits "would be a costly undertaking of an unprecedented degree."

"As families continue to face the daily impacts of the climate crisis, they are willing to spend more of their hard-earned money on products from brands that are better for the environment," James said in a statement. "When companies falsely advertise their commitment to sustainability, they are misleading consumers and endangering our planet."

JBS didn't respond to a message seeking comment. The New York lawsuit was filed against JBS USA Food Company and JBS USA Food Company Holdings.

The food company has faced growing criticism as it considers listing shares on a U.S. stock exchange.

In 2023, the BBB National Programs' National Advertising Division (NAD), a nonprofit that the advertising industry uses to regulate itself, said that JBS should stop claiming that it is committed to being "net zero by 2040." While the company appeared to make a "significant preliminary investment" to cut its climate pollution, the NAD said there was no evidence that it was carrying out a plan to achieve its target. A review panel upheld the finding on appeal, saying JBS "is in the exploratory stage" of trying to meet its climate pledge.

U.S. lawmakers have also raised concerns about the company. Earlier this year, a bipartisan group of senators told the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Wall Street's top regulator, that JBS has a history of "exaggerating environmental stewardship and downplaying other risks."

New York state prosecutors are trying to force JBS to stop making "fraudulent and illegal" marketing claims about its climate efforts. The state is also seeking civil fines, among other penalties.

Independent researchers say a lot of companies with net-zero climate targets haven't put forward credible plans to cut or offset their greenhouse gas emissions.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 29, 2024 at 12:00 AM EST
An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the National Advertising Division is part of the Better Business Bureau. The BBB National Programs' National Advertising Division is an independent nonprofit.
Michael Copley
Michael Copley is a correspondent on NPR's Climate Desk. He covers what corporations are and are not doing in response to climate change, and how they're being impacted by rising temperatures.