PHILADELPHIA – Anheuser-Busch InBev NV, the world’s biggest brewer, was sued by consumers in three states for allegedly overstating the alcohol content in its Budweiser beer.
AB InBev’s St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch routinely adds extra water to its finished products to produce malt beverages with significantly less alcohol content than displayed on its labels, violating state statutes on consumer protection, according to a complaint filed Tuesday in federal court in Philadelphia. Similar lawsuits were filed in federal courts in New Jersey and San Francisco.
“AB’s customers are overcharged for watered-down beer and AB is unjustly enriched by the additional volume it can sell,” Thomas and Gerald Greenberg said in the Philadelphia complaint.
AB InBev, the maker of Budweiser and Stella Artois, controls 39 percent of the U.S. beer market. The company is seeking government approval to buy the rest of Grupo Modelo SAB, Mexico’s largest beermaker, for $20.1 billion. The Modelo brands account for 7 percent of the U.S. market. AB InBev shipped 98.5 million barrels in the U.S. in 2011, according to Beer Marketer’s Insights.
The claims against Anheuser-Busch are “completely false,” Peter Kraemer, the company’s vice president of brewing and supply, said in an email.
“Our beers are in full compliance with all alcohol labeling laws,” Kraemer said.
“We proudly adhere to the highest standards in brewing our beers, which have made them the best-selling in the U.S. and the world.”
The complaints accuse the AB InBev unit of also mislabeling the amount of alcohol in Bud Ice, Bud Light Platinum, Michelob, King Cobra, Busch Ice, Black Crown, Bud Light Lime, Hurricane High Gravity Lager, Natural Ice and Michelob Ultra.
Josh Boxer, an attorney for plaintiffs in California, said additional lawsuits will be filed against the company in Ohio and Colorado. The California complaint, filed by Sonoma County residents Nina Giampaoli and John Elbert, seeks to represent consumers in the state and consumers nationwide who have purchased AB InBev products in the past five years. All three complaints seek damages exceeding $5 million.
It’s unclear in the complaints how the plaintiffs determined the alcohol content was less than stated.
Boxer said the complaints are based on information from former workers at some of the company’s 13 U.S. breweries.
AB InBev allegedly keeps the alcohol level for each batch of malt beverage at specifications above the desired final product at least initially, then adds water and CO2 to the final stage of the brewing process, according to the complaint.
Adding water to the brewing process cuts the stated alcohol content by 3 percent to 8 percent, Boxer said.
In addition to damages, the lawsuits are seeking a court order requiring Anheuser-Busch to fund a “corrective advertising campaign” to remedy its allegedly illegal conduct.