WASHINGTON, April 21 (Reuters) - U.S. Supreme Court justices sharply questioned a lawyer for Coca-Cola on Monday, asking why a juice label touting pomegranate and blueberry should not be considered misleading if the drink contained only a tiny amount of the fruits.
Officially, the case was about whether a competitor - in this case POM Wonderful - could challenge as misleading the label on a juice bottle sold by Coke’s Minute Maid brand if the Food and Drug Administration had not objected to it.
The Minute Maid juice is sold as a “Pomegranate Blueberry Flavored Blend of 5 Juices” but is primarily apple and grape juice with 0.3 percent pomegranate juice and 0.2 percent blueberry juice, according to a POM court filing.
POM Wonderful, which makes a juice that is 100 percent pomegranate juice, argued that the Minute Maid juice label was misleading and would hurt sales for its product.
Pomegranate and blueberry are popular with health conscious Americans because they contain antioxidants that some believe prevent cancer and heart disease, although the science behind that belief is unclear.
Kathleen Sullivan, who argued for Coca-Cola, said that the label complied with rules laid down by the FDA, the federal agency that oversees some aspects of food labeling for processed foods and drinks.
Thus, she 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.”
Coca-Cola’s Sullivan also argued that consumers were sophisticated enough to know that when they saw a food label containing the word “flavored” that other juices would be in the bottle.
Justice Anthony Kennedy disagreed: “Don’t make me feel bad because I thought that was pomegranate juice.”
Kennedy said pointedly at another instance: “I think it’s relevant for us to ask whether people are cheated in buying this product.”
In a parallel fight, the Federal Trade Commission has accused POM of making health claims for its juices that the company cannot substantiate. POM is appealing.
The case at the Supreme Court is POM Wonderful LLC v. The Coca-Cola Company, No. 12-761. (Reporting by Diane Bartz; Editing by Bernard Orr)