Supreme Court: Despite FDA regulation of misbranded food, POM Wonderful may sue Coca-Cola under the Lanham Act for allegedly deceptive ads

Read this morning's Supreme Court 8-0 decision here. (Justice Breyer did not participate.) The first three paragraphs of Justice Kennedy's opinion sum things up nicely:

POM Wonderful LLC makes and sells pomegranate juice products, including a pomegranate-blueberry juiceblend. App. 23a. One of POM’s competitors is the Coca-Cola Company. Coca-Cola’s Minute Maid Division makes a juice blend sold with a label that, in describing the contents, displays the words “pomegranate blueberry” with far more prominence than other words on the label that show the juice to be a blend of five juices. In truth, the Coca-Cola product contains but 0.3% pomegranate juice and 0.2% blueberry juice.

Alleging that the use of that label is deceptive and misleading, POM sued Coca-Cola under §43 of the Lanham Act. 60 Stat. 441, as amended, 15 U. S. C. §1125. That provision allows one competitor to sue another if it alleges unfair competition arising from false or misleading product descriptions. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that, in the realm of labeling for food and beverages, a Lanham Act claim like POM’s is precluded by a second federal statute. The second statute is the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA), which forbids the misbranding of food, including by means of false or misleading labeling. §§301, 403, 52 Stat. 1042, 1047, as amended, 21 U. S. C. §§331, 343.

The ruling that POM’s Lanham Act cause of action is precluded by the FDCA was incorrect. There is no statutory text or established interpretive principle to support the contention that the FDCA precludes Lanham Act suits like the one brought by POM in this case. Nothing in the text, history, or structure of the FDCA or the Lanham Act shows the congressional purpose or design to forbid these suits. Quite to the contrary, the FDCA and the Lanham Act complement each other in the federal regulation of misleading food and beverage labels. Competitors, in their own interest, may bring Lanham Act claims like POM’s that challenge food and beverage labels that are regulated by the FDCA.

As we've noted before, POM's position in the Supreme Court was a tad ironic, given its history of ads claiming the wondrous health benefits from drinking its pomengranate juice. Watch Jon Oliver's brilliant piece on the subject here.

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