by Marion Nestle
Apr 23 2014

POM v. Coca-Cola at the Supreme Court: The Mind Boggles

You might think that the Supreme Court of the United States would have more important things to do than to weigh in on which of two beverage companies puts less misleading labels on its products, but apparently not.

The highest court in the land takes POM Wonderful’s accusation against Coca-Cola seriously.  Coke’s Minute Maid juice, POM says, is advertised in ways that mislead the public.

POM should know.   It’s been under fire from the Federal Trade Commission for equally absurd label claims.

Here’s the Coca-Cola product at issue.

And here’s what the label says, in case you can’t read it (with emphasis added):

Enhanced Juice/Minute Maid/100% Fruit Juice Blend

Omega-3/DHA/HELP NOURISH YOUR BRAIN

5 Nutrients to Support Brain and Body

Pomegranate  Blueberry Flavored Blend of 5 Juices

From concentrate with added ingredients and other natural flavors

Never mind the nutritional quality or the ridiculous structure/function claims on this particular product (here’s Fooducate’s analysis from 2009—it has 29 grams of sugars, among other things).

POM doesn’t want Coke getting away with selling cheap grape and apple juices as pomengranate juice and undercutting their prices.  Coke’s drink is 99% apple and grape juice; it contains less than 1% pomegranate or blueberry juice.  You would never know that from looking at the label.

Why is the court interested?  The Minute Maid label is legal by FDA standards.  Therefore, can the label be considered misleading?

Coca-Cola won in the lower court, but the Supreme Court seems sympathetic to POM (here’s the transcript of the hearing).

The New York Times account has the best quotes:

Kathleen M. Sullivan, a lawyer for Coca-Cola, said consumers were not misled.

“We don’t think that consumers are quite as unintelligent as Pom must think they are,” she said. “They know when something is a flavored blend of five juices and the nonpredominant juices are just a flavor.”

Justice Kennedy frowned. “Don’t make me feel bad,” he said, “because I thought that this was pomegranate juice.”

It also quotes from Justice Alito:

You don’t think there are a lot of people who buy pomegranate juice because they think it has health benefits, and they would be very surprised to find when they bring home this bottle that’s got a big picture of a pomegranate on it, and it says ‘pomegranate’ on it, that it is — what is it — less than one half of 1 percent pomegranate juice?”

Where is the FDA on all this?  Blame its inaction on the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, which allowed ridiculous health claims on food labels and forced the FDA to keep hands off.

This outcome of this case, silly as it is, will be fun to watch.

  • MAGottlieb

    If Pom prevails (in a most ironic victory), it would seem likely that it would be a big boost to other deceptive labeling cases brought by either consumer classes or competitors. Or, will industry go back to Congress to give some regulatory control back that was lost with DSHEA? Strangely, I’m rooting for Pom.

  • Savannah

    Finally someone is doing something about this!!! They really should not be getting away with this false advertising. As a health conscious person I typically stay away from the middle aisles of the grocery stores but when I do buy these types of foods, I ALWAYS read the labels. Which is why most juice companies should be charged with this accusation.

  • Sarah Moore

    Don’t they have to put all of the ingredients in the label? What if someone has allergies? For instance, I am allergic to apples.

    I’m so glad I live in Europe.

  • jeffjfl

    1994’s DSHEA has nothing to do with claims on the labels of food products like Minute Maid Fruit Juice Blend. These are governed by an earlier set of regulations, The 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act. DSHEA covers only Dietary supplements.

  • Kathy

    I remember years ago going to a demonstration of maple syrup making. We were given a taste of the sap, which contains about 2% maple sugar. It tasted like very-slightly sweet water. The point was that the taste of artificial syrups are virtually unaffected by the 2% real maple syrup many brands claim to contain. So, whenever I see fruit juices that claim 2% or less of the headline flavor, I pass it by.

    No matter how the Supreme Court rules, the label is misleading.

  • Amber

    I simply must agree this labeling is silly. Just imagine being misled by a label when the ingredient is present at only one half of one percent! Next thing you know, they will insist on labeling foods with trace amounts of GM ingredients — oh, wait, those silly Vermonters already have done that.

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  • Nathan Demure

    I agree on the labeling. I smoke purplecig electronic cigarettes and it will be good to know the ingredients since I have limitations on what I eat.