A US federal appeal court has dismissed an appeal by a Coca-Cola rival alleging that a Minute Maid product containing ‘pomegranate and blueberry’ juice in small amounts by volume was falsely labeled and advertised.
But in their ruling, the three circuit judges said they did not hold that the Minute Maid labeling was ‘non-deceptive’, and said the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was free to act if it believed there had been a violation.
The suit relates to the Coca-Cola Company’s ‘Pomegranate Blueberry Flavoured Blend of 5 Juices’ (pictured) launched in September 2007, which contains 99.4% apple and grape juice, 0.3% pomegranate juice, 0.2% blueberry juice and 0.1% raspberry juice.
A label on the front of bottles displays a picture of all these fruits.
Pom Wonderful launches action
Believing it was losing sales on account of this product, according to the appeal court, Californian pomegranate juice maker Pom Wonderful sued Coke in 2008, alleging it was misleading consumers as to product composition – since the Minute Maid product contained more cheaper apple and grape juice – and challenging its name, labeling, marketing and advertising.
A US District Court in California ruled in Coca-Cola’s favour before the case went to trial, and this judgment was upheld by the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco yesterday.
But the latter said that POM might be able to pursue some state law claims against Coca-Cola – on unfair competition and false advertising ground – and returned the case to the US district court in Los Angeles for further proceedings.
Coca-Cola spokeswoman Susan Stribling told Reuter’s that Coke was confident that the lower court would dismiss “what little is left” of POM’s claims.
The appeal court ruled that the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) and its regulations barred pursuit of name and labeling aspects of Pom’s claim made under the US ‘Lanham Act’ that polices false advertising.
“The naming component of Pom’s claim is barred, because, as best we can tell, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations authorize the name Coca-Cola has chosen,” the judges said in their opinion yesterday.
Juice labeling regulations
The FDA allows manufacturers to name beverages using names of flavouring juices not predominant by volume (21 C.F.R [Code of Federal Regulations] §102.33) that a juice blend can represent a juice in its name or label, even if the blend also contains a juice other than juice named or represented on the label.
POM’s challenge to ‘Pomegranate Blueberry Flavored Blend of 5 Juices’ would thus create a conflict with FDA regulations that would require the court to undermine these, the judge said.
The same went for Pom’s labeling claim – where the court said it wanted to force Coke to alter ‘Pomegranate Blueberry’ to make the type less conspicuous than ‘Flavored Blend of 5 Juices’.
“But again this result would undermine the FDA’s regulations and expert judgements,” the judge said, given FDCA regulations on labeling ensuring that statements on labeling are “likely to be read and understood by the ordinary individual”.
However, in barring Pom’s labeling claim, the court said “we do not hold that Coca-Cola’s label is non-deceptive” and that the FDA was free to act if it believed Coca-Cola’s bolder type for ‘Pomegranate Blueberry’ misled consumers.