January 14, 2014
Authored by: Brandon Neuschafer
The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a dispute between POM Wonderful and Coca-Cola involving the intersection between FDA food labeling requirements and the Lanham Act’s restrictions against deceptive product labeling and advertising. At its essence, the Supreme Court is being asked to determine whether a private party can bring a Lanham Act claim against a food manufacturer for a food product whose label otherwise complies with FDA regulations governing the label.
POM Wonderful and Coca-Cola have been entrenched in litigation for years surrounding Coca-Cola’s marketing of pomegranate blueberry juice that contained only small amounts of pomegranate and blueberry juices (about 0.3% and 0.2%, respectively) and larger amounts of apple and grape juices. POM Wonderful has long argued that Coca-Cola’s use of the term “pomegranate blueberry juice” is misleading to consumers given the actual ingredients in the product.
In 2012, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals determined that POM Wonderful could not challenge the name used by Coca-Cola under the Lanham Act because the product met FDA’s requirements for use of the name. The Ninth Circuit also determined that POM Wonderful’s request to require Coca-Cola to reduce the size of print used by Coca-Cola on the label would usurp FDA’s authority.
POM Wonderful submitted to the Supreme Court a petition for writ of certiorari, and on January 10, 2014, the Supreme Court granted the petition. The case raises some very significant issues for food manufacturers and marketers. Primarily, it raises the question of whether FDA labeling requirements (or labeling requirements of any federal agency, for that matter) are the sole source of authority for product regulation, or do more general statutes such as the Lanham Act also apply? POM Wonderful has argued that the Ninth Circuit ignored other legal authority that requires both statutes be given effect unless there are irreconcilable differences between their requirements, resulting in a landscape where as long as the bare minimum FDA labeling requirements are met, the manufacturer has free reign to otherwise label as they please.
It’s not often that Supreme Court cases have a direct impact on food and beverage regulation, so we’ll certainly continue following and posting about this case.