In September 2008, Pom Wonderful, LLC, the makers of pomegranate and pomegranate blend juices, filed a Lanham Act claim against Coca-Cola Company. The subject of the claim was Coca-Cola’s Minute Maid brand pomegranate blueberry juice. Pom Wonderful claimed Coca-Cola’s ads and labels regarding the juice drink were misleading and resulted in unfair competition.
The Lanham Act is normally associated with trademark infringement claims. But the Lanham Act goes beyond trademark protection and creates a cause of action for individuals and companies against competitors for unfair competition through false or misleading advertising. Coca-Cola, however, claimed that Pom Wonderful’s Lanham Act claim was precluded by another federal statute governing food labeling: the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (the FDCA), which grants the task of policing food and beverage labeling to the FDA. Both the District Court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Coca-Cola. The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which unanimously ruled last week that Pom Wonderful’s false advertising claim can move forward.
Pom Wonderful claims that the name, marketing, labeling, and advertising of Coca-Cola’s Minute Maid pomegranate blueberry juice is misleading because of the minuscule amount of pomegranate and blueberry juice actually contained in the blended juice drink. According to case records, Coca-Cola’s Minute Maid pomegranate blueberry juice only contains .3 percent pomegranate juice and .2 percent blueberry juice. 99.4% of the blend is actually (the far less expensive) apple and grape juices, and the remaining .1 percent is raspberry. Although the label does indicate (in smaller font just below the label) that the drink is a blend of 5 juices, and includes a picture of all 5 fruits, Pom Wonderful claims that calling the drink “pomegranate blueberry juice” is misleading and that consumers have and will mistakenly believe that the drink is primarily made up of pomegranate and blueberry juices. Even if consumers believed, based on the picture and the language about the drink being a blend of 5 juices, that the drink contains fairly equal parts of all 5 juices, that is still a far cry from the reality of the mix. Pom Wonderful claims that this confusion has resulted in a loss of sales because, by using the less expensive ingredients, Coca-Cola is able to sell its Minute Maid Pomegranate Blueberry juice for much less than if it contained primarily pomegranate and blueberry juices.
The legal question at issue for the Supreme Court was whether Pom Wonderful was precluded from bringing a claim under the Lanham Act because of the FDCA. Unlike the Lanham Act, competitors cannot bring a claim under the FDCA. The Supreme Court, in reversing the District Court’s and the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, held that competitors can bring Lanham Act claims challenging food and beverage labels that are governed by the FDCA. The pomegranate case will now be remanded back to the District Court to be decided on its merits as a Lanham Act unfair competition claim. In the meantime, Coca-Cola continues to sell its “pomegranate blueberry” juice under the contested label.