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.