Posts Tagged ‘misleading’

Unsafe Harbor

becksThere are something like 25 pending lawsuits, about whether various alcohol beverage labels are misleading.

Right there, that should tell you there is not much safe harbor, even though every one of those labels was federally approved, pre-market. Most of the labels were approved many times over many years.

Of course, the first refuge of every defendant is to argue that heavens no, the label can’t possibly be misleading, because the mighty TTB examined and approved it, after all.

The very recent Beck’s settlement should put this trite notion to rest. Over and over TTB said yeah the Beck’s label is fine, even though it has a bunch of references to Germany and the brand’s history, and even though the beer has been made in the U.S. for many years now. The court approved the settlement on October 20, 2015.

shIn my opinion, the harbor should not be any safer than the review is rigorous. To the extent TTB carefully focused on the specific issue in controversy, and ruled on it, according to rigorous standards, that would be a different story. But, by contrast, a quick review and a shot from the hip should not a safe harbor make. I don’t mean to be too critical of TTB or A-B. The same parties can also provide a good example of the very opposite phenomenon, where the review is more probing, and the harbor stood up as safe. The Lime-A-Rita case shows this other side of the coin. In the Lime-A-Rita case, the plaintiffs said the label is deceptive because it refers to (Bud) Light, when in fact the product is loaded with sweeteners and is no paragon of lightness. But A-B beat back this challenge, and rightly so, because in this instance TTB did have good, solid, narrow, relevant, rigorous standards, duly applied by TTB and duly complied with by A-B, and so eureka the many TTB approvals did in fact provide a warm and cozy safe harbor.

TTB has narrow, careful rules around many terms such as “straight,” “estate bottled,” chardonnay, Napa Valley, “Late Harvest.” Thus, these are the types of terms that should provide a safe harbor (when properly used and approved, according to the same rules). But, by contrast, TTB nor anyone else has good, solid, rigorous rules around terms such as craft, handmade, handcrafted, small batch, reserve, etc. — and so it is much less clear that a safe harbor should apply. It is true that the terms could be puff, in the absence of such rules, but who ever said it is either black or white, puff or not, all or nothing? Surely there are some terms somewhere in the middle, neither pure opinion nor hard fact. I do agree that many label terms do gravitate toward one pole or the other, and I do agree that such terms should be protected, as either puff or within a safe harbor. But we still need a good plan for the terms somewhere in the middle. Maybe TTB should develop and apply some rigorous rules on such. Or maybe the companies that want to use them should explain what they mean by them, to put them in a comprehensible context.

One more example should make the point. Templeton Rye, like Beck’s, Bass, Kirin and many others, also of course had TTB-approved labels. This did not stop the lawsuits or provide any safe harbor. If there were a safe harbor to be found, anywhere near these controversies, the defense lawyers certainly would have found it.

The Beck’s case underscores one other quandary. It is hard for me to understand how it can be a good, long-term business plan, to take the Beck’s brand, known for being German if nothing else, and blur the life out of it by making it elsewhere. The penalty within the lawsuit is something like $28 million, but the obliteration of the Beck’s identity seems far more expensive in the long term. A-B paid a couple billion dollars for the brand in 2012.  I can only assume it is short-term, quarter-to-quarter, propping up the numbers, Wall Street thinking, designed to enrich the near-term stakeholders, at the expense of those who arrive at the punch bowl later.


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alcohol beverages generally, malt beverage

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Coke Gets Served (and Pommelled)

Last week’s U.S. Supreme Court decision, Pom v. Coca-Cola, is not just about juice. It has massive implications for small brewers, big distillers and all other alcohol beverage marketers. It shows that TTB rules and other agency rules set a floor, not a ceiling, on how companies need to market their products. It shows that the government is only a part of the web of review, in concert with competitors. Just as we predicted that Pom would win this case, we now predict that some alcohol beverage companies will soon take legal action against others, even though such cases, other than trademark cases, were very rare in the past 50 years.

It was bad enough for Coke when Pom called out Coke for going quite a bit too far in posing its apple juice as pomegranate juice. It got even worse when various Supreme Court Justices suggested, orally, that Coke was trying to trick people. And on June 12, 2014 it got even worse, when the Supreme Court unanimously disagreed with Coke’s position. In Pom v. Coca-Cola, the Court said, if there is trickery on food labels, and it hurts a competitor, of course they can do something about it, even if FDA (for whatever reason) does not.

Pom and the Supreme Court have made it clear that one company can go after another for dubious labeling, and the government no longer has all the authority in this area.

The Court said, rather than the Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act (FDCA) knocking out the Lanham Act, the two Acts can happily coexist, complement each other, and provide synergy. The former protects consumers as to health and safety. The latter protects competitors as to commercial interests.

We have lots more coverage of this important case, and the background, in this post from earlier this year.

Coke went astray fairly early in the multi-year litigation, trying to invent a theory under which FDA “approved” the label at issue. FDA did no such thing. To approve is an act, and FDA’s posture here was the opposite of an act. FDA did not condone, approve or disapprove the label at issue. Perhaps FDA was busy with many other pressing concerns, or it was a gray area. This is in stark contrast to how TTB handles most labels — with a rigorous, case-by-case, and explicit pre-market approval regime. To say that FDA approved the Minute Maid label is like Donald Trump getting one $500 haircut per week, every week, calling it a business expense and taking an IRS deduction for 10 years — then saying the IRS approves of his hairstyle and his deduction. The IRS would, of course, have done no such thing. Rather, it would be the case that the IRS, simply, had so far refrained from any adverse action. To use the terms in the opinion, there is a difference between approving something and merely tolerating it.

There are not a lot of juicy quotes in the opinion, but the case does have massive implications. The Court noted, in a realistic way, that:

FDA … does not have the same perspective or expertise in assessing market dynamics that day-to-day competitors possess. Competitors who manufacture or distribute products have detailed knowledge regarding how consumers rely upon certain sales and marketing strategies. Their awareness of unfair competition practices may be far more immediate and accurate than that of agency rulemakers and regulators. Lanham Act suits draw upon this market expertise by empowering private parties to sue competitors to protect their interests on a case-by-case basis.

It is very refreshing to see Washington give some credit to those who work in an industry long-term, every day. The huge implications of this case would seem to be:

  1. A massive shift of enforcement authority, from bureaucrats in Washington, to private parties all around the world. Professor John Duffy noted:  “A second important point about POM is that the reasoning in the decision shows the Supreme Court’s increasingly ambivalent approach to administrative regulation.  More than a century ago, administrative agencies were often cast in nearly heroic terms; they were thought to be wise experts who could bring intelligent, centralized regulation to remedy the abusive marketplace tactics.  In yesterday’s decision, however, the Court shows just how little is left of that notion.” Duffy nails it, saying: “It is … hard not to think that some of the reasoning in this case reflects a new skepticism – or perhaps it should be described as a healthy realism – about the capabilities of administrative agencies.”
    1. Justice Roberts, in the oral arguments, actually said, in reference to misleading labels:  “What does the FDA know about that? I mean, I would understand if it was the FTC or something like that, but I don’t know that the FDA has any expertise in terms of consumer confusion apart from any health issues.”
  2. The ready ability of Coke to police Pepsi’s business practices, Bud to police Coors, Gallo to police other wine companies, Bacardi to regulate Diageo — on and on. Not only can the big regulate the big, but the small can regulate the big and vice versa. It could be a free-for-all. Duffy explained that this case, along with another:  “is almost certain to produce a significant expansion in competitors bringing Lanham Act claims against each other over false or misleading statements.”
    1. Even more, this means little craft brewers and distillers can go after big guys with a claim that:  “you are BS’ing about craft, and it hurts us.”
    2. An advertising law expert said:  “It opens the floodgates to increased litigation. The message to marketers is now that compliance with the FDA is only a first step and is by no means insurance against other types of claims.”
  3. This will give us a bit of a taste of what libertarian-style government might look like, and a bit of relief from command-and-control government, perhaps.
  4. Even though there is affirmative pre-market approval for alcohol beverages, and this is not the case for most foods and other beverages, it would seem that the same basic principles apply. It would seem that the FAA Act was likewise not intended to impair or preclude the Lanham Act.
  5. On behalf of food clients, food lawyers now get to serve as mini-FDAs, and private TTB lawyers have been deputized to serve as mini-TTBs (on behalf of any aggrieved beverage company clients).
  6. This makes it easy for TTB and FDA to deflect many complaints, and remind the aggrieved that they have a ready means for self-help.
  7. After many decades to the contrary it may turn out that the federal food and beverage laws are a floor, rather than a ceiling. CSPI said:  “The Court recognized that companies don’t have a safe haven from being sued for deception just by complying with FDA’s minimal regulations.”

It will be ironic indeed when a competing food company goes after Pom. But Pom seems more than able to protect itself and I have rarely seen a better example of a company being on the defensive, after the various FTC inquiries — and turning it into such a major victory. There should be a cliche about turning bitter fruits into profitable fruit juices.


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Posted in:

alcohol beverages generally

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