CSPI v. Welch Foods

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (“CSPI”) continues its attacks on allegedly misleading food labels continues.  On August 14, 2012, CSPI declared that it had “Whack[ed] Welch’s Over Deceptive Health Claims” in reference to a “demand letter” to Welch Foods which asserts that various heart-healthy claims  were “deceptive and misleading.”  Specifically, CSPI contends that:

  1. claims that Welch’s 100% Fruit Juice product line is heart-healthy and may promote overall health are “deceptive and misleading because [these]  products may instead decrease overall health by  contributing to insulin resistance and obesity, and may thus promote heart disease and diabetes”;
  2. the claim that Welch’s Fruit Snacks, Fruit Juice Cocktails, Spreads, and 100% Fruit Juice drinks “Reward Your Heart” and are heart-healthy products is “unlawful because it is a claim of heart disease prevention, it lacks substantiation, and it is deceptive”; and
  3. claims that Welch’s Fruit Snacks products are nutritious and healthful to consume are “deceptive and misleading because … Welch’s Fruit Snacks contain added sugars and artificial food dyes, lack significant amounts of real fruit, and contain no dietary fiber.”

CSPI argues that these “claims violate state consumer protection laws such as Massachusetts G.L. c. 93A, Texas Business & Professions Code § 17.41 et seq., District of Columbia Code § 28-3905 et seq., New Jersey Statutes Ann. 56:8-1 et seq., California Business & Professions Code §§ 17200 & 17500, and California Civil Code §§ 1770(a)(5) & 1770(a)(14).”   Accordingly, CSPI states that Welch Foods will face a lawsuit unless it stops making heart-health claims for the above-named products.

The same day, Welch Foods issued a response stating, in relevant part:

[That] the substantial body of research conducted over a 15-year period supports the cardiovascular benefits of 100% grape juice made with Concord grapes, including many placebo controlled, human studies.    In addition, a recent comprehensive review of the science published in Nutrition Today concluded that consuming grapes and grape juice can support cardiovascular health without adversely affecting weight in healthy adults.

Contrary to CSPI’s view on the role of 100% fruit juice, the United States … Department of Health and Human Services 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans… say that 100% juice is one way to add more fruit to the diet as a complement to whole fruit intake.

Furthermore, equating the nutritional value of 100% grape juice to soft drinks is not only misleading but potentially harmful to the public.  Calorie for calorie, 100% grape juice packs more nutrition than soft drinks and delivers essential vitamins, minerals, and beneficial plant nutrients – to help promote health.

Welch’s declined to provide further comment in light of the potential litigation but cited numerous studies that it said supported its claims.

Notably, CSPI’s first and second arguments recall the on-going POM Wonderful  dispute with the FTC in which POM argues, among other things, that it has a First Amendment right to communicate the results of ongoing studies and that its 100% juice products are undeniably healthy.

Here, CSPI criticizes the fact that Welch Foods “highlights the antioxidant content of its 100% Grape Juices and fruit blends” because the claimed benefits are not based on “competent and reliable scientific evidence that is sufficient in quality and quantity based on standards generally accepted in the relevant scientific fields, when considered in light of the entire body of relevant and reliable scientific evidence….”  CSPI further argues that any health benefits are offset by the negative effects of the juice’s sugar and calorie content.  Although I cannot comment on the scientific studies cited by both sides, I do question CSPI’s attacks on the communication of health-related information in the promotion of a 100% juice product.  Under the CSPI’s view, it appears that almost any such communication would be an implied health claim that must be supported by the most stringent scientific studies and that, regardless, any claim (whether implied or not) could not be made if there are potentially offsetting factors (e.g., sugars and calories).   If the CSPI’s goal is to improve nutrition and public health, then its approach to this complex issue is too draconian and 100% juice should not so easily be equated with soda.

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