The United States Supreme Court has decided to wade into a battle between POM Wonderful LLC and Coca-Cola Co. over whether Coke’s labeling of its Minute Maid pomegranate-blueberry juice blend violates the Lanham Act’s prohibition against false advertising. POM is challenging the Ninth Circuit’s decision upholding dismissal of its Lanham Act claim, which alleged that Coke’s pomegranate-blueberry juice labels are misleading because the product is actually more than 99 percent apple and grape juice. According to the Ninth Circuit, however, FDA regulations authorized the use of the product name, and thus precluded POM’s false advertising claims.
Despite the Solicitor General’s recommendation that the Court deny POM’s petition, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in the case last Friday, agreeing to resolve the question of “whether the court of appeals erred in holding that a private party cannot bring a Lanham Act claim challenging a product label regulated under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.” The cert petition can be found here.
Although the issue to be addressed by the Court is focused on claims involving the Lanham Act, a federal false advertising law typically invoked in business disputes between competitors—the decision may have a significant impact on the deluge of consumer class action food-labeling cases that have been filed recently. The extent of that impact will ultimately depend on the breadth of the Court’s decision and whether it can be read to suggest that the regulation of food and beverage labels should be taken out of the hands of private parties and left to the FDA.
To date, results have varied for food companies attempting to rely on POM’s preemption analysis to defeat state law false advertising claims. Some courts have found the claims preempted, while others have distinguished POM on the basis of the Ninth Circuit’s decision being limited to the Lanham Act. Depending on the reach of the Supreme Court’s decision here, that could change.
A ruling affirming Pom could crystallize the FDA’s role as the primary authority over food labeling, limiting the extent to which private parties may assert false advertising claims in the face of FDA regulations and offering a level of certainty to food companies whose labels are FDA compliant.