Last week, New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit against the world’s largest beef producer JBS USA Food Company and JBS USA Food Company Holdings (JBS Group). The lawsuit challenges the company’s claim that it will achieve net zero greenhouse emissions by 2040 despite its documented plans to increase production and lack of supporting evidence that the aspirational claim is attainable.

Generally, achieving “net zero” means negating the amount of greenhouse gases produced by activity by reducing emissions and implementing methods of absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (also known as “offsetting”). According to the complaint, there are no proven agricultural practices that would allow the JBS Group to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to net zero at the company’s current scale, and offsetting the emissions would be a “costly undertaking of unprecedented degree.”

Beef production emits the most greenhouse gas of all major food commodities and is strongly linked to large-scale deforestation, according to the lawsuit. In 2021, the JBS Group reported that the company’s total global greenhouse emissions were over 71 million tons. The New York AG expects that this number is likely higher, because it does not account for “all greenhouse gas emissions attributable to livestock production in the supply chain which may constitute approximately 90% of its overall emissions.”

James’s office found that consumers are willing to spend more for products that tout environmental benefits, as “more than two-thirds of American adults are willing to pay for more sustainable products and find sustainability claims material to their purchases.” Advertising unsubstantiated sustainability benefits is considered deceptive and a violation of New York’s consumer protection statutes.

This is not the first time the JBS Group has been challenged on its net zero claims. In 2023, the National Advertising Division (NAD) recommended that the JBS Group discontinue its aspirational net zero emissions claims, as it “reasonably creates high expectations,” and NAD “requires significant evidence that the advertiser’s efforts are providing environmental benefits with a very specific measurable outcome.” These recommendations were affirmed by the National Advertising Review Board. JBS stated that it would comply with NAD’s recommendations and changed its website. According to James, however, JBS continues to advertise its “net zero” mission on its site, and its executives continue to promote the company’s “net zero” programs.

In its lawsuit, the New York AG seeks to prohibit the JBS Group from continuing the alleged false and misleading marketing practices. Additionally, the AG seeks to require the company to conduct a third-party audit of compliance with relevant New York consumer protection statutes and to pay civil penalties as well as disgorgement for ill-gotten gains realized from violations of the law.

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