U.S. sues juice maker over health claims

September 29, 2010

According to The Wall Street Journal, federal regulators on Sept. 27 sued the maker of a popular pomegranate fruit drink, POM Wonderful LLC, in a widening effort by the government to clamp down on food ads that tout specific health benefits.

The Federal Trade Commission’s suit alleges that POM’s advertisements for POM Wonderful 100% Pomegranate Juice and its POMx supplements contain “false and unsubstantiated claims” about treating or preventing heart disease, prostate cancer, and erectile dysfunction. One ad cited by the FTC says, “New research offers further proof of the heart-healthy benefits of POM Wonderful juice.” The ad says the drink leads to a “30% decrease in arterial plaque” and “17% improved blood flow.”

The company came out swinging in its defense, calling the allegations “completely unwarranted” and accusing the government of violating POM’s constitutional rights. In a press release on the company’s Web site, it states “We do not make claims that our products act as drugs. What we do, rather, is communicate, through advertising, the promising science relating to pomegranates. Consumers and their health providers have a right to know about this research and its results.”

The FTC wants POM to change ads on its Web site and stop running the ads in newspapers and magazines. In addition, as part of its proposed settlement, the FTC demands that POM get approval from the Food and Drug Administration in the future for any ads that claim that its product “cures, prevents, treats, or reduces the risk of any disease.”

Both the FTC and the FDA have targeted food ads asserting health benefits and disease prevention in the past year, saying that too many companies have been marketing food as if it were medicine. Several companies, including Nestlé SA and Kellogg Co., have backed off some claims in the wake of warnings.

In February, the FDA tagged 17 food producers, including POM, with warning letters, saying their ads violated federal laws because they were making specific claims about health benefits. In addition to talking about arterial plaque and blood flow, some POM ads describe company-funded clinical trials that, according to the company, show POM juice products can slow the progression of prostate cancer by lowering the level of antigens in the body called PSAs.

The agency’s complaint says that some of POM’s studies did not show heart disease benefits and that the prostate cancer study wasn’t conducted in a standard, scientifically rigorous manner. POM said it stands by its research, adding that it has spent over $34 million on studies.

The Wall Street Journal article

POM Wonderful press release