Supreme Court Grants Certiorari in Dispute Over Pomegranate Juice Labels

The Supreme Court will review the Ninth Circuit’s ruling that Pom Wonderful LLC (Pom), the maker of pomegranate juice products cannot challenge the label of Coca Cola’s Minute Maid juice products under the Lanham Act because the FDA is solely in charge of regulating food labels. Pom alleged that Coca Cola’s labels were deceptive, as their “pomegranate and blueberry” juice blend was 99.4 percent apple and grape juice. Pom sued under the Lanham Act which allows for private lawsuits for unfair competition based on deceptive labeling or marketing. The petition for certiorari was filed in December of 2012. Neither Justice Alito or Justice Breyer took part in the consideration or decision.

As we reported in January of 2013, Pom argued that the Ninth Circuit erred, because the federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDC Act) promotes public health while the Lanham Act provides remedy for parties harmed by unfair competitive practices, including deceptive labeling. Pom argued that the court should have applied a “conflict preemption” analysis such as that in Wyeth v Levine, and that actions alleging deceptive labeling of food under the Lanham Act do not present obstacles to the FDA enforcing the FDC Act.

On November 27, 2013, the Solicitor General on behalf of the United States filed an amicus brief arguing that the petition for writ of certiorari should be denied. The United States argued that although the Ninth Circuit made some errors in its analysis, and its preclusion reasoning was too broad “it was correct to recognize that FDA’s regulations preclude a Lanham Act challenge to the common name of respondent’s juice…the common name of respondent’s juice closely parallels examples that FDA’s regulations offer as permissible common names for juice mixtures.”

At trial, Pom claimed that Coca Cola’s label was deceptive because: (1) the words “pomegranate” and “blueberry” were in a much larger type than the words indicating that they were used as flavoring in a blend of other juices; and (2) the picture on the label showed pomegranates and blueberries in equal size and proportion to apples and grapes. Pom presented evidence that the labels led consumers to believe that the product contained significant, if not equal, amounts of pomegranate and blueberry juices in proportion to the apple and grape juices. The United States argued that the real issue in the case at hand is that between the common name of the juice and the presentation on the package of the otherwise non-misleading common name, and this ambiguity makes the case improper for determining whether Lanham Act is precluded.

The full history of the case can be found here.