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Food Packaging Is Changing For The Better

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Photo:timmygunz/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Have you ever been stuck in an airport for a terribly long layover and are out of podcasts, magazines, and things to say to whoever you're traveling with? Try this game out. Head over to the nearest food stand, pick up any bottled fruit beverage, and try to guess what's inside based on the front artwork. Then, turn it over to the nutritional label and see if you're right.

Chances are, you won't be!

Anyone who's read the label of any fruit beverage knows what to expect by now: High in sugar, high in calories, maybe high in sodium, and oddly-small serving sizes that no one really follows. But what's perhaps not quite common knowledge at this point is the general lack of actual fruit juice inside of the container that says "fruit juice" in front. Or, at least, the fruit juice that's being advertised.

This week, the Supreme Court finally took notice of this discrepancy. And by doing so, they may have changed how our beverages are going to look in the future.

The whole thing came about because Pom Wonderful (who's had their own legal problems) sued Coca-Cola over false advertising. Their issue with the soft drink giant? That Coca-Cola was stealing sales away from their own brand of pomegranate juice by placing their (cheaper) Minute Maid Pomegranate Blueberry drink next to it. I know what you're thinking. "What's the big deal? This is how the free market works, right?" Sort of.

See, while Pom Wonderful's drink contains 100% pomegranate juice, Minute Maid's version contains only 0.3 percent pomegranate juice, 0.2 percent blueberry juice, and 0.1 percent raspberry juice. The rest is apple and grape juice. So for a consumer to make an informed decision between the two products, they would have to closely read the back of both labels rather than simply scanning the front artwork.

This marketing sleight of hand didn't sit well with the folks in the black robes:

"Don't make me feel bad because I thought this was pomegranate juice," [Justice Anthony] Kennedy told Coke's lawyer, Kathleen Sullivan, as laughter erupted in the court.
"He sometimes doesn't read closely enough," Justice Antonin Scalia chimed in to more laughter.

And so, they ruled in an 8-0 decision (with Justice Stephen Breyer sitting this one out, because they apparently don't need all the judges for this one) that Pom Wonderful could pursue their lawsuit with Coca-Cola. But because this is a Supreme Court decision, it means a whole lot more than that.

For instance, now companies may have to worry about more than simply getting their products through the FDA's rigorous safety examinations. They'll also have to navigate through their labyrinth of handsomely-paid legal advisers telling them whether or not their front label designs are accurate enough. And if they aren't? Well, they can expect more and more lawsuits to be levied at them from competitors. (Many suspect this ruling will open the floodgates for lawsuits of this type, meaning it may just be a matter of time before all that Coke v. Pepsi legal fan-fiction becomes a reality.)

But beyond the corporation-on-corporation legal machinations, it also means something important for us, the consumer. And it's good news:

Consumers might feel a little more protected ... because competitors now know that they can take legal action on food and beverage labeling.

That's right. Soon enough, you may actually be able to pick up a fruit juice from that airport store and actually get a good sense of what's inside of it just by looking at the front cover. Don't expect it to happen tomorrow, or even next week. But if this legal precedent does what it's presumed that it will, then actual honesty and integrity may once again enter into the front part of food packaging.

And then you'll have to find some other way to alleviate your boredom on those long layovers. Which is just as well, because that's an awful game.

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