Posted April 28, 2014
Last week the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the food labeling case, POM Wonderful v. Coca-Cola. Ronald Mann from SCOTUS Blog wrote a thorough analysis of the argument here. Forbes, the New York Times, and Reason Magazine also reported on the story.
The arguments focus on whether the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) bars a false-advertising claim under the Lanham Act.
In 2008, Pom Wonderful filed suit against Coca-Cola, claiming that Coca-Cola made false claims under the Lanham Act because its Minute Maid “Pomegranate Blueberry” juice contained 99 percent apple and grape juices, only 0.3 percent pomegranate juice, and 0.2 percent blueberry juice.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the FDCA and its regulations prohibited name and labeling claims under the Lanham Act, which authorizes lawsuits against defendants who use false or misleading descriptions about any goods. The order is available here.
In it appeal, POM argued that: “(1) Neither the Lanham Act nor the FDCA includes any explicit limitation on the application of the Lanham Act to this controversy; (2) the court should imply such a limitation only if the statutes are in irreconcilable conflict; and (3) the statutes are not in irreconcilable conflict because Coca-Cola can easily comply with both statutes.”
Coca-Cola argued that the FDCA preempts POM’s lawsuit under the Lanham Act, because the FDA has exclusive authority to regulate food labels.
According to SCOTUS Blog, the Justices spoke frankly, quickly rejecting Coca-Cola’s preemption argument. Justice Kagan commented that “there are plenty of statutes which say you can’t bring State law or Federal law claims. Congress knows how to do that.”
Justice Sotomayor, along with others, asked how Coca-Cola’s argument can follow its recent decision in Wyeth v. Levine, which permitted a state tort suit for failure to warn based on pharmaceutical label that FDA explicitly required the manufacturer to use.
Justice Kennedy asked: “Is it part of Coke’s narrow position that national uniformity consists in labels that cheat the consumers like this one did?” Justice Kennedy also asked: “You want us to write an opinion that said that Congress enacted a statutory scheme because it intended that no matter how misleading or deceptive a label it is, if it passes the FDA, there can be no liability. That’s what you want us to say?”
The Chief Justice and others suggested that the FDCA and the Lanham Act should be treated as two separate “regimes,” serving different purposes.
Justice Ginsburg closed the argument with “what seemed to be the consensus of the Court” with a question posed to Coca-Cola: “In the real world, the FDA has a tremendous amount of things on its plate, and 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 blessing this label, saying it’s not misbranding, when its regulations aren’t reviewed by the Court, when there is no private right of action, and say that that overtakes the Lanham Act. It’s really very hard to conceive that Congress would have done that.”
For more information on food labeling, please visit the National Agricultural Law Center’s website here.