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After more than a decade of legal proceedings – including a rejected US$8M settlement – a federal judge has given preliminary approval for consumers to file claims against Wesson Oil’s vegetable oil containing genetically-modified (GM) soyabean or corn, CNET reported.

A class action suit filed in 2011 alleged that ConAgra Foods, Wesson’s parent company at the time, falsely advertised the oil as “100% natural” from at least 2006 until 2017 despite the fact it was made from GM crops, the 5 January report said.

Customers were “induced to pay more for Wesson Oils due to that false and deceptive claim”, according to the complaint.

By July 2017, ConAgra had removed the “100% natural” language from Wesson packaging and stopped advertising its products that way, the report said, and the following year, it agreed to a US$8M settlement to resolve the case.

However, a federal judge rejected the deal as nearly US$7M of the total would be used for lawyers’ fees. The agreement included “too many indicators that class counsel’s and Conagra’s self-interest unduly influenced the outcome of the negotiations,” District Court Judge Cormac J Carney wrote at the time.

Following the judge’s preliminary approval for a US$3M settlement in November, the official settlement site went live in December and customers who had purchased Wesson oil during the specified time frame could now file for compensation, CNET wrote.

The re-worked settlement provided US$3M for affected consumers with no fees for the plaintiffs’ lawyers, CNET wrote.

ConAgra Foods had not responded to a request by CNET for comment, but, in court filings, had denied any wrongdoing. It sold the Wesson brand to Richardson International in 2019.

The settlement covers anyone who purchased Wesson brand cooking oils, including Wesson Vegetable Oil, Wesson Canola Oil, Wesson Corn Oil and Wesson Best Blend, which were marketed, advertised and/or sold as “natural”, according to the report. In addition, the products must have been purchased for personal consumption and not commercial use or catering.

Only residents of 11 states were covered by the new settlement, and each state had its own date range for qualifying Wesson purchases, the report said.

A final fairness hearing on the agreement has been scheduled for 24 April, according to the report, with any payments issued after that date, although this could be delayed by appeals.

Wesson Oil was developed by food chemist David Wesson in the 1880s as a commercial alternative to shortenings with animal fat.