WASHINGTON -- Coca-Cola didn't get much love from the Supreme Court Monday in claiming that its Minute Maid pomegranate-blueberry juice is the real thing.
"Misleading," "deceptive" and "labels that cheat the consumers" were some of the descriptions used by the court to describe Coke's name for a product that contains 0.3% pomegranate juice and 0.2% blueberry juice. And those were just from Justice Anthony Kennedy, the most frequent swing vote on the court.
The occasion was a challenge from POM Wonderful, makers of 100% pomegranate juice, brought under a 1946 law that prohibits false advertising. And while Coke countered that two laws governing Food and Drug Administration regulations allow the name, a majority of justices weren't enamored with the label.
"Why are you permitted to use it in a misleading way?" Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked Coke's attorney, Kathleen Sullivan. When Sullivan disputed that the label was misleading, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg chimed in, "Suppose that the reality is that consumers are misled."
So misled, it became clear, that Kennedy himself was among those duped. "Don't make me feel bad, because I thought that this was pomegranate juice," said the court's lone Californian, where the fruit is grown.
The case boils down to a contest between various laws enacted by Congress, and which one carries the most weight. POM Wonderful argues that the Lanham Act prevents competitors from mischaracterizing their products.
That fits Coke's juice to a P, POM attorney Seth Waxman said, because it contains only an "eye-dropper" of pomegranate juice. "It amounts to a teaspoon in a half gallon," he said, the rest being almost entirely less expensive apple and grape juices.
Coke says the FDA has authority in this area, which would stop POM Wonderful from succeeding in state courts. The only way to have one law of the land, Sullivan said, is to adhere to federal labeling rules, which permit naming products by their "minority" contents.
"Coke's label is, as a matter of law, not misleading," Sullivan said. A close reading of the label shows that it's called "Pomegranate Blueberry Flavored Blend of 5 Juices," with the first two words printed in larger letters.
But that argument didn't appear to pass muster with the justices. Several noted that the FDA's principal role is in protecting health and safety, not commercial competition.
"Labels for juices are not really high on its list," Ginsburg said.