In the latest development in the class action, filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and private law firms vs Coca-Cola, US Magistrate Judge Robert M. Levy said the suit may proceed but that the plaintiffs can seek declaratory and injunctive relief only (no damages).
A Coca-Cola spokeswoman told FoodNavigator-USA the company was pleased the judge “recommended denying class certification as to all damages claims alleged by the plaintiffs”.
Meanwhile, Coca-Cola stood by its products and its claims, she added: “Vitaminwater is a great tasting, hydrating beverage with essential vitamins and water-and labels clearly showing ingredients and calorie content.
“We firmly believe the plaintiffs’ claims are without merit and will ultimately be rejected.”
CSPI: Today's decision puts this case on a glide path toward a jury trial
However, the CSPI said Coca-Cola was peddling a product with “negligible amounts of juice” (typically less than 0.5%) and tons of sugar (a 20oz bottle of non-diet vitaminwater has 8tsp of sugar and 120cals) as a healthy alternative to sugary soft drinks.
"Today's decision puts this case on a glide path toward a jury trial where Coca-Cola will have to defend under penalty of perjury the deceptive claims it has made and continues to make in connection with vitaminwater," said CSPI litigation director Steve Gardner.
"The marketing of vitaminwater will go down in history as one of the boldest and brashest attempts ever to affix a healthy halo to what is essentially a junk food, a non-carbonated soda," added CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson.
Just because you accurately label sugar on the label does not mean that a reasonable consumer might not be misled
The lawsuit, which brings together class actions in several states, alleges that Coca-Cola misled consumers over the health benefits of Vitaminwater.
Coca-Cola’s motion to dismiss the suit was rejected in 2010 by federal judge John Gleeson of the US District Court in Brooklyn, NY, who said the description of Vitaminwater as a ‘vitamin-enhanced water beverage’ and the phrases ‘vitamins + water = all you need’ had “the potential to reinforce a consumer’s mistaken belief that the product is comprised of only vitamins and water”.
He also rejected Coca-Cola’s argument that by listing the sugar content of Vitaminwater in the nutrition panel it could not be accused of misleading consumers: “The fact that the actual sugar content of Vitaminwater was accurately stated in a Food and Drug Administration-mandated label on the product does not eliminate the possibility that reasonable consumers may be misled.”
Jelly bean rule
Coca-Cola’s use of health claims and the word ‘healthy’ also violated FDA regulations on vitamin-fortified foods (the so-called ‘jelly bean rule’ rule that prohibits companies from making health claims on foods that only meet various nutrient thresholds via fortification), claimed Gleeson.
“In finding Vitaminwater’s marketing and labeling to be potentially misleading, I have given substantial weight to the FDA’s determination that fortification of a food in a manner that is not consistent with FDA’s fortification policy may be misleading because it may lead consumers to consume foods that contain sugar or other sources of calories, but lack any inherent nutrients other than those that have been added through fortification.”
Coca-Cola acquired the VitaminWater range in 2007 through its acquisition of Energy Brands (Glaceau).
The case is Batsheva Ackerman, Ruslan Antonov, James Koh, and Juliana Ford vs Coca-Cola Company and Energy Brands, Inc.