In an opinion issued on July 21, 2010, Judge John Gleason of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York largely denied the defendant’s motion for dismissal and held that 10 of the 13 claims in a class action suit brought against Coca-Cola for alleged unlawful health claims on its Vitaminwater drinks could proceed. The claims that still must be examined in court include allegations of misleading advertising, fraudulent business acts, and unfair methods of competition.

The plaintiffs in the class action, which include the health advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest (“CSPI”) as co-counsel, contended that Vitaminwater’s labeling and marketing is misleading because it (1) communicates a number of purported health benefits (including healthy joints, optimal immune function, and reduced risk of chronic disease), drawing consumer attention away from the significant amount of sugar (33 grams per bottle) in the product; (2) portrays Vitaminwater as healthy when it is essentially a snack food that provides nutritional benefits because it has been specifically fortified to do so; and (3) suggests that Vitaminwater contains nothing but vitamins and water.

While the court concluded, citing applicable Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) rules and commentary, that sugar was not a “disqualifying nutrient” under applicable FDA regulations, the plaintiffs’ latter two claims were found to accurately describe violations of FDA regulations, and accordingly may serve as a non-preempted basis of state law liability.

The FDA regulations restricting health claims or implied claims of healthiness related to foods that meet certain minimum nutrient levels, colloquially termed “the jelly bean rule,” were developed in an effort to prevent food producers from encouraging the consumption by consumers of junk food by fortifying the food in question with nutrients. The “jelly bean rule” is applicable only to (1) health claims, and (2) nutrient content claims that use the word “healthy” to suggest that a food may help consumers maintain healthy dietary practices because of its nutrient content. Finding that Vitaminwater’s labeling contains claims in each of these two categories, the court ruled the plaintiffs could proceed with this claim.

The plaintiffs alleged Vitaminwater’s labeling is misleading because it uses a product name that includes two of the product’s ingredients (vitamins and water), but fails to mention another notable ingredient (sugar). FDA regulations on this subject recognize that such product names have the potential to mislead consumers. Thus, the court held that the plaintiffs were allowed to pursue this claim. In the aftermath of this ruling, Coca-Cola released a statement expressing their confidence that the plaintiffs’ claims are without merit and will ultimately be rejected. Given that the implications this case could carry into the growing functional food and beverage segments of the market, we will continue to track it closely.