Two months have passed since the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and POM Wonderful began engaging in the legal fight that has each party suing the other in what is likely to become the United States’ health claims battle royal. In short, the FTC maintains that the pomegranate juice company made false and unsubstantiated claims that its products can prevent or treat heart disease, prostate cancer, and erectile dysfunction. POM argues that the agency is overstepping its regulatory authority in its attempts to rein in the company’s product claims.
As UNPA Executive Director Loren Israelsen predicted when he first spoke with NewHope360 about the issue, the fight has not faded into the background of the healthy products industry. Rather, it continues to generate headlines within the mainstream business and consumer media—headlines that question the actions of the FTC, POM and other healthy product marketers.
"This case is extremely high profile," Israelsen said in late September. "The ramifications will go way beyond POM and the pomegranate and may affect how consumers view other fruit products. The cranberry and blueberry and Amazon super fruit folks all have to be watching this very carefully."
POM defends itself to WSJ
As Israelsen also noted, neither side appears willing to back down—which will continue to fuel the media coverage. In an Oct. 25 interview with L. Gordon Crovitz of The Wall Street Journal, POM Wonderful Co-Founder Lynda Resnick said her company plans to continue fighting the FTC. “One of the beauties of being privately held is that you can make decisions that do not look so good today but that build your tomorrow,” Lynda Resnick said.
The outspoken POM marketing maven also defended the research that she says backs the claims made by her company. “If we were going to lie, we’d do what some supplement companies do, by spending a couple of hundred thousand dollars on a silly research project,” Lynda Resnick told Crovitz. “Why would we spend $35 million on research?”
'Don’t believe everything you read on labels'
Crovitz’s Wall Street Journal piece comes off as being very pro POM, but that isn't the case for some other articles published recently about the pomegranate company and its legal fight with the FTC.
In a piece titled “POM-boozled,” Health.com’s Sarah Klein attempts to dissect whether POM’s research really does back up its health claims, looks at why industry-funded research can be biased and explores why health claims can be so persuasive for shoppers.
Ultimately, Klein draws the conclusion that consumers would be wise to scrutinize product labels carefully. “The bottom line,” Klein writes, “is that consumers shouldn’t believe everything they read on labels.”
'Consumed with doing good'
The FTC fight isn’t Lynda and Stewart Resnicks’ only legal wrangling, as Susan Berfield details in a lengthy Bloomberg Businessweek profile of the POM co-founders. The couple is also involved in legal suits against Minute Maid, Tropicana, Welch’s and Ocean’s Spray for false advertising claims related to their juice beverages. POM lost its case against the Minute Maid brand (which is owned by the Coca-Cola Co.) and is appealing. It’s also appealing its case against Welch’s because POM wasn’t awarded damages even though a jury found Welch’s guilty of deceptive advertising. On Nov. 12, a jury rejected POM's claims against Tropicana, a division of PepsiCo.
In an interview with Businessweek, Lynda Resnick suggested that the growing ire between POM and its competitors is fueling the FTC’s attack against the pomegranate company: "What's motivating them? Is it our competitors, who have all these lobbyists there?" she asked.
The Resnicks are determined to stand up for the rights of food marketers, which is why the couple sued the FTC for violating their First Amendment rights. "We are consumed with doing good," Lynda told Businessweek. "That's why this POM stuff is so ridiculous. Please. We are fruit. Hello? Why do we need thousands of people in a 20-year trial for fruit? They do it for drugs because drugs kill people, or potentially harm them."
Readers weigh in
Of course, It’s not just the journalists who are joining in on the conversation about POM, the FTC and the future of health claims marketing. Readers of these publications are also voicing their opinions.
"I was glad to see the public being made aware of the not so true claims of food companies,” wrote one reader on a Maclean’s article titled, "The healing power of groceries." "While one ingredient in some of these products may be beneficial, there are usually several others that are not."
"This is just like Activia yogurt, or products that imply they 'cure' a cold. Slick advertising, promising people easy results, and you are sucked right in," wrote another reader on a Vancouver Sun article titled, "Sex, lies and pomegranate juice focus of U.S. legal battle."
A reader had this to say about Crovitz’s Washington Post article: “The FTC and the FDA may be ham-fisted and clunky and slow—but I, for one, do not want to leave the validation of health claims to product manufacturers. The POM folks may be honest and well intentioned, but they are not representative of the overwhelming majority of health food manufacturers. Take a stroll down the kids cereal aisle at your local grocery store—most kids cereals have the nutritional impact of candy, yet are marketed as being 'healthy.' If POM has to work harder and spend more prove its claims, I say, thank you FTC and FDA!"