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 percent pomegranates and blueberries. It's almost all apple and grape juice. And last 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.
Though the case involved protecting corporations rather than consumers, the interests of shoppers have been given a big boost. The court ruling provides consumers with an avenue for lawsuits challenging misleading ads and labels, by partnering with a willing corporate competitor. The case also will result in more scrutiny of the FDA. This will be especially important as consumer groups increase pressure on the FDA to make the word "natural" mean something; it's now far too loose a term. The agency already is being asked to allow genetically engineered foods to be labeled as natural, which it should quickly and firmly reject. In regulating labels, the FDA needs to adopt a high yet reasonable standard that seeks to answer the question "WWCT?" — "What would consumers think?"