Americans can argue — and do, all the time — about what kind of information should be required on food labels. What's self-evident, though, is that whatever information is on the label should be trustworthy.
POM Wonderful, the seller of designer pomegranate juice, is absolutely right when it alleges that the "pomegranate-blueberry" juice blend sold by its competitor, Minute Maid, leads consumers astray by implying that the juice is, well, made from pomegranates and blueberries. Even the smaller wording underneath — "Flavored Blend of 5 Juices" — would leave most shoppers believing that the two named juices predominate.
In fact, the product is less than 1% pomegranates and blueberries. It's almost all apple and grape juice. And this week, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed POM to move forward with its lawsuit alleging that misleading labeling by Coca-Cola, Minute Maid's parent company, puts POM's more expensive juices at a competitive disadvantage.
The case involves multiple ironies. For one thing, POM is itself battling allegations that it misled the public by claiming that its product fights various ailments. For another, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, charged with protecting consumers from misleading labels, claimed in this case that an obviously problematic label was just fine.
Under federal law, once the FDA has approved a label, consumers have no further recourse in the courts; all they can do is appeal to the agency or the food company. But POM sued under another federal law that allows companies to challenge unfair competitors, arguing that Coca-Cola was marketing a cheaper juice under a label implying that the product was substantially the same as what POM sells. The FDA claimed that its authority precluded any such challenge. The court rightly rejected that notion: One federal law doesn't necessarily take precedence over another. During arguments, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy noted that he himself would have been fooled by the juice label.