Nihal Parkar, MJLST Notes and Comments Editor
Coca Cola’s Minute Maid Pomegrenate Blueberry Juice Blend contains about an eye-droppper’s worth of pomegranate and blueberry juices, with apple and grape juices constituting 99.4% of the blend. POM Wonderful, a competitor that mainly markets pomegranate juice, filed a false advertising suit against Coca Cola under the Lanham Act. The Ninth Circuit held that federal food regulations preclude private actions challenging food product labels.
Specifically, the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act grants the FDA authority over food labeling. However, it is not quite clear if the FDA has exclusive authority over potentially deceptive food labeling. Coca Cola has argued that exclusive authority was granted to the FDA so that food manufacturers could rely on a uniform set of standards for food naming and labeling. POM has countered by saying that the FDCA and FDA regulations only provide a minimum floor for food regulations, while other laws intended to protect consumers and competition are still applicable to food manufacturers.
The Supreme Court granted cert and recently heard oral arguments. Coca Cola has continued to argue that its labeling meets all federal regulations. However, various Justices expressed skepticism, and asked why meeting federal labeling regulations, while necessary, would be sufficient to grant Coca Cola immunity even if the labeling did mislead consumers. The following exchange from the oral arguments is indicative of the tenor of the hearings:
Kathleen M. Sullivan (for Coca Cola): Because we don’t think that consumers are quite as unintelligent as POM must think they are. They know when something is a favored blend of five juices, non-min — the non-predominant juices are just a flavor.
Justice Anthony Kennedy: Don’t make me feel bad, because I thought that this was pomegranate juice.
It remains to be seen though, if the Supreme Court ultimately agrees with POM. A decision is expected later this year.