US Supreme Court justices have grilled a lawyer for Coca-Cola, asking why a juice label touting the presence of pomegranates and blueberries should not be considered misleading if only 0.5 per cent of the drink consisted of the fruits.
Coca-Cola argued that it could not be sued over the labelling of one of its Minute Maid juice products because the label complies with rules of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which oversees some aspects of labelling for processed foods and drinks.
POM Wonderful, which makes a product that is 100 per cent pomegranate juice, had filed suit against Coca-Cola, claiming the Minute Maid juice label was misleading and would hurt sales for its own product.
The Minute Maid juice is sold as a "pomegranate blueberry flavoured blend of five juices". It is more than 99 per cent apple and grape juice with just 0.3 per cent pomegranate juice and 0.2 per cent blueberry juice, according to a POM court filing. Combined, they make up about one teaspoon per litre.
Lawyer Kathleen Sullivan, who argued for Coca-Cola, said the company could not be sued by POM for being misleading under the Lanham Act, which is designed to protect trademarks.
Chief justice John Roberts appeared to disagree: "I don't know why it's impossible to have a label that fully complies with the FDA regulations and also happens to be misleading on the entirely different question of commercial competition, consumer confusion that has nothing to do with health."
Pomegranate and blueberries are popular because they contain antioxidants that some believe prevent cancer and heart disease, although the science behind that belief is unclear.
The issue of whether the labelling is misleading drew sharp questions.
Justice Anthony Kennedy said: "I think it's relevant for us to ask whether people are cheated in buying this product."
Sullivan said consumers were sophisticated enough to know that, when they saw a food label containing the word "flavoured", other juices would be in the bottle.
Kennedy shot back: "Don't make me feel bad because I thought that was pomegranate juice."
Kennedy also raised the question of "whether people are cheated in buying this product".
Justice Sonia Sotomayor agreed with Kennedy, saying: "You're permitted to use this name under their [FDA] regulations. But why are you permitted to use it in a misleading way?"
Sullivan took exception to the justices' statements. "Coke's label is as a matter of law not misleading," she said.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, addressing a related issue, argued that the FDA had a huge job. "Labels for juices are not really high on its list. It has very limited resources. You are asking us to take what it has said about juice as a blessing [on] this label,"
In a parallel fight, the Federal Trade Commission has accused POM of making health claims for its juices that it cannot substantiate. POM is appealing.