A dust-up over pepper has landed in federal court in Minneapolis.

A small Minnesota producer, Watkins Inc., filed a lawsuit Tuesday against giant spice maker McCormick & Co., claiming it has misled consumers by secretly cutting the amount of pepper in its tins by 25 percent, without reducing the price or size of the container.

Winona-based Watkins is known for its food extracts, especially vanilla. The 147-year-old company has been trying to expand its spice business in recent years.

In its lawsuit, Watkins claims McCormick has violated federal and state laws regarding deceptive trade practices and has mislead consumers and food retailers. The Star Tribune (http://strib.mn/1JFfBO1 ) reports that Watkins says McCormick has cut the amount of pepper in its spice tins by half, to 2 ounces.

McCormick "gave the false impression that nothing had changed," Watkins said in its lawsuit. The company's pepper tins "are now 25 percent empty, which constitutes nonfunctional 'slack-fill.'"

As the dominant pepper player, McCormick essentially has set a standard for packaging in the market, prompting competing brands to use similarly sized tins, Watkins argues.

"McCormick intentionally maintained the price of its standard tins, notwithstanding the significant reduction in the amount of ground black pepper contained in the traditional tin, which had the effect of further adding to the perception that nothing had changed," Watkins said in the suit.

McCormick spokeswoman Lori Robinson said the company has reduced the net weight of its black pepper and has been forthright about the changes.

"We followed industry standard procedures and were transparent about this change, clearly updating the net weight on packaging, issuing a UPC code change and notifying retailers well in advance. It is typical for packaging size and UPC code changes to take time in store to transition," Robinson said in a statement.

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Information from: Star Tribune, http://www.startribune.com