There’s a fight over food labels at the Supreme Court on Monday between two companies that know a little something about marketing. On one side is Pom Wonderful, owned by Lynda and Stewart Resnick, the Beverly Hills billionaires responsible for starting the pomegranate superfood craze with their juice. On the other is Coca-Cola (KO), which needs no introduction. At issue: a pomegranate-blueberry-flavored juice produced by Coca-Cola’s Minute Maid division, and alleged by Pom to carry a misleading label.
If Pom wins, food labels could come under increasing legal scrutiny, and it’s possible many of them won’t fare well.
Pom first sued Coke in 2008 under the Lanham Act, which prohibits false and misleading statements about a product and can only be invoked by companies, not consumers. The Minute Maid drink had been introduced the year before with a price considerably lower than Pom Wonderful’s. Pom is 100 percent pomegranate juice, and the Resnicks, helpfully, are the biggest pomegranate growers in the U.S.
In the courtroom, Pom pointed out that when customers buy Minute Maid’s Pomegranate Blueberry Flavored Blend of five juices, they think they’re getting mostly pomegranate and blueberry juice. But the beverage is 99.4 percent apple and grape juice, 0.3 percent pomegranate juice, 0.2 percent blueberry juice, and 0.1 percent raspberry juice. Pom also took issue with the images on the label—featuring a pomegranate and blueberries as prominently as an apple, grapes, and raspberries—and the size of the type for “Pomegranate Blueberry” compared with “flavored blend of five juices.”
All of this, as well as the name of the drink itself, have been ruled permissible under Food and Drug Administration regulations. Turns out that the FDA allows companies to name beverages using the juices that provide the flavor, even if they don’t provide the volume. The Supreme Court will now look at the interplay between the two federal laws and decide whether the FDA’s regulation of beverage labels prevents Pom from bringing deceptive advertising claims under the Lanham Act.
There’s more that’s pretty juicy, too. Pom itself has been fighting with the Federal Trade Commission over its own advertising. The FTC determined in 2012 that some health claims the Resnicks advertised about their products were deceptive. Among the more brash ones: “Drink to prostate health. Sometimes, good medicine can taste great,” went one ad in Prevention magazine; “I’m off to save prostates! Man by man, gland by gland …,” read another in Men’s Fitness. The Resnicks had spent $35 million on some 100 studies, but, according to the FTC, have been unable to prove that their pomegranate juice and pills can treat or prevent heart disease, prostate cancer, and erectile dysfunction. Pom is appealing the ruling in federal court.