The U.S. Supreme Court recently granted certiorari to hear an appeal filed by POM Wonderful LLC in connection with its suit against The Coca-Cola Company under the Lanham Act alleging that Coca-Cola’s “Pomegranate Blueberry” juice labels are misleading. POM Wonderful asserts these labels are misleading due to the fact that, despite the name, the product contains very little pomegranate or blueberry juice. Instead, the juice contains approximately 99 percent grape and apple juice, and only 0.3 percent pomegranate juice and 0.2 percent blueberry juice.
Coca-Cola argues that the product label has images of all five fruits contained in the beverage and that the name “Pomegranate Blueberry – flavored blend of 5 juices” clearly informs consumers that the product is a blend of fruits and tastes like pomegranate and blueberry juice. In essence, Coca-Cola asserted that its labels are technically in compliance with Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations.
The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to Coca-Cola on the ground that POM Wonderful does not have the right to challenge FDA regulations that allow Coca-Cola to label the beverage as Pomegranate Blueberry juice. The Ninth Circuit asserted that the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) wholly regulates food and beverage labeling and as such, a plaintiff cannot sue under the Lanham Act to enforce the FDCA or its regulations or to interpret ambiguous FDA regulations. In other words, according to the Ninth Circuit, the FDCA expressly preempts product labeling claims, thus leaving no room for a company to challenge a competitor’s label under the Lanham Act.
POM Wonderful filed its petition for certiorari in December 2012, arguing that the Ninth Circuit erred when it found that the FDCA preempts claims under the Lanham Act. Coca-Cola, on the other hand, argues that allowing companies to assert the kinds of claims made by POM Wonderful will undermine the FDA’s regulatory scheme, resulting in the waste of government resources.
Although there does not appear to be a circuit split on this issue, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in this matter, despite opposition from the Solicitor General’s office. A decision in the case is expected in late summer 2014.
What This Means To You
Depending on the breadth of the decision, a finding by the Supreme Court that upholds the Ninth Circuit ruling could severely hamper the ability of private parties to sue under federal or state law for misleading labels. It could be left entirely to the FDA to police the kind of claims made by POM Wonderful.
If you have questions about this or other legal issues, please contact your Husch Blackwell attorney.