In arguments before the Supreme Court earlier this week, Coca-Cola asserted that its label for Minute Maid “Pomegranate Blueberry” juice, which contained a “flavored blend of 5 juices” complies with FDA rules and therefore, Coca-Cola could not be sued by a competitor for using an allegedly “misleading” label under the Lanham Act. Years ago, the juice market was dominated by apple and orange juices – until POM Wonderful introduced pomegranate based drinks trumpeting the health benefits of pomegranate juice. POM Wonderful fairly aggressively challenges drink makers that offer beverages with small amounts of pomegranate, while still boasting of the health benefits associated with the juice.
Pom Wonderful sued Coca-Cola under the Lanham Act on the ground that Coca-Cola’s product misleads consumers because purchasers would have no way of telling that the total amount of pomegranate and blueberry in the juice amounts to “a teaspoon in a half gallon.” Coca-Cola’s defense rested on the ground that the FDA’s right to regulate and approve labels preempts POM Wonderful’s false advertising claims.
During oral arguments, Chief Justice John Roberts seemingly disagreed with Coca-Cola’s defense: “I don’t know why it’s impossible to have a label that fully complies with the FDA regulations and also happens to be misleading on the entirely different question of commercial competition, consumer confusion that has nothing to do with health.” Similarly, Justice Anthony Kennedy seemed skeptical of Coca-Cola’s assertion that consumers are sophisticated enough to know that other juices would be in the bottle because the food label contained the word “flavored”. Justice Kennedy wryly stated: “Don’t make me feel bad because I thought that was pomegranate juice.” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg also seemed nonplussed by Coca-Cola’s argument, stating “But maybe the two acts are serving different purposes.”
A favorable decision on behalf of POM Wonderful could give rise to an increase in consumer and competitor suits over labelling and advertising claims. A decision in the case is expected in June.