In a unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court ruled today that Coca-Cola can be sued for false advertising for its pomegranate-blueberry juice–which contains less than a percent each of pomegranate and blueberry juice–despite complying with FDA regulations.
This may seem like an advertising or health issue, and it is, but the problem is inherently one of design. To recap, Pom, which makes 100% pomegranate juice (along with some other blends), sued Coca-Cola for selling a Minute Maid juice named, sort of ridiculously, “Enhanced Pomegranate Blueberry Flavored 100% Juice Blend of 5 Juices.” On the bottle itself, the words “pomegranate” and “blueberry” are given prominent billing. None of the other juices (grape, apple, and raspberry) are listed by name on front of the bottle, despite the fact that they comprise 99.4% of the juice. Looking at the bottle, the Supreme Court ruled, you’d get the sense that this is primarily a juice made of pomegranate and blueberry, two trendy antioxidant-heavy (and expensive) fruits.
While there’s nothing unsafe or wrong about the actual product, the way it’s visually presented is grossly misleading to consumers, and it’s certainly not the only product like that. Coca-Cola attempted to play the smart customer card, with its attorney saying “we don’t think that consumers are quite as unintelligent as Pom must think they are.” That little remark turned out to be a mistake, with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who wrote the Court’s response, saying, “Don’t make me feel bad, because I thought this was pomegranate juice.”
Coca-Cola argued before a few lower courts and eventually the Supreme Court that it could not be sued, since it had complied with all of the Food and Drug Administration’s finicky, weird little laws. The same laws that permit the nutritional labels that nearly everyone agrees are inadequate. With this ruling, the Supreme Court made it harder for companies to hide behind those laws.
Admittedly, this is all financially motivated; the immediate effect will be that, from here on out, one company can sue another if it thinks a competitor is using dishonest design to gain a competitive advantage. (By comparison, Pom’s pomegranate juices are roughly five times more expensive than Minute Maid’s “pomegranate” juices.) But this watchdog effect could well have some serious effects on the way our packaged food looks in the future: not just in the nutritional label, but the way certain words can be sized or emphasized, or how certain pictures or drawings can appear. With luck, that’ll be for the better, with companies preemptively embracing more honest food packaging.
It’s a big step for activist groups (or, um, competitors, I guess) who are frustrated with the inadequate laws from the FDA. If we can only get a minor revision after decades of problematic labels, then its important to have ways to extend regulation beyond what little the FDA does have.
You can read more about the decision over at USA Today.