The US Supreme Court heard arguments from attorneys representing Pom Wonderful and Coca-Cola about whether to allow false advertising claims to be brought against Coca-Cola, despite the product in question’s compliance with FDA labeling requirements.
At issue is whether the label for Coca Cola’s Minute Maid brand “Pomegranate Blueberry Flavored Blend of 5 Juices” is misleading, given the product contains only .3 percent pomegranate juice and .2 percent blueberry juice. The product label displays a large pomegranate and several blueberries flanked by other fruits, and the words pomegranate and blueberry appear in much larger font than the rest of the product name.
Coca Cola’s attorney, Kathleen Sullivan, argued the suit should not be allowed to go forward because the label fully complies with the FDA’s regulations, which were approved in the interest of national uniformity and preclude competitors from bringing false advertising claims under conflicting federal trademark laws.
Pom’s attorney, Seth Waxman, called federal food and drug laws “a floor and not a ceiling,” saying they are not intended to prevent false advertising claims.
Justice Anthony Kennedy questioned whether the federal uniformity argument is furthered in allowing “labels that cheat the consumer like this one did.”
Chief Justice John Roberts said he saw no reason a label that complies with FDA regulations couldn’t be challenged as misleading to consumers on some other grounds.
Justice Department lawyer Melissa Sherry appeared on behalf of the Obama administration and adopted a measured approach. She said that because FDA regulations specifically allow labels like the one Coke used when products contain juice blends, federal food and drug law precludes Pom from challenging the name of the drink. However, Pom’s challenge to the presentation of the juice’s name and other aspects of the label not addressed by FDA law or regulations should be permitted.
The case is being watched closely because it has implications for the future permissibility of private lawsuits focusing on misleading food product packaging.