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Legal battle over pomegranate health claims

Legal battle over pomegranate health claims

FDA, FTC challenge pomegranate health claims. War over pomegranate juice important to San Joaquin Valley farmers: All the POM Wonderful products’ 2009 sales of $165 million came from Paramount Farms’ 18,000 acres of pomegranates and what they purchased from other farmers. Resnicks vow to fight; will not fold. There are now about 30,000 acres of pomegranates in the Valley, more than double the acreage of 2006.

The boat that floated the current San Joaquin Valley pomegranate parade has sprung a leak.

However, don’t expect a Titanic sequel if POM queen Lynda Resnick has anything to say about it.

She has already said plenty. Even before the Federal Trade Commission filed suit against Stewart and Lynda Resnick’s POM Wonderful company for false advertising, the multi-billionaire Resnicks fired a peremptory shot across the government’s bow by filing a lawsuit against the government claiming violations of First and Fifth Amendment principles of free speech.

She also took dead aim at the Food and Drug Administration for challenging the medical benefit claims of pomegranate juice and other POM Wonderful products.

The Cleopatra lookalike, Mrs. Resnick is not one to rile. (Cleopatra reportedly used pomegranate arils as lipstick). Steward and Lynda Resnick have no board of directors or stock market listing to make them wilt before the federal government. They are not expected to wilt as the government ramps up its campaign for greater food label scrutiny relating to nutritional value.

Makers of Rice Krispies and Frosted Mini-Wheats were put in a bowl and told to quit making false claims. Snack makers have come under similar scrutiny. As companies with stockholders and boards, most decided to surrender to orders from the government rather than fight.

POM Wonderful has become the government’s next target. It’s not folding.

This war over pomegranate juice is important to San Joaquin Valley farmers. All the POM Wonderful products’ 2009 sales of $165 million came from Paramount Farms’ 18,000 acres of pomegranates and what they purchased from other farmers. The Resnicks have spent $35 million funding research on the health benefits of pomegranates to bolster the value of the funny-looking fruit; a fruit no one really knew what to do with until the Resnicks came along.

This success has created a big demand for fresh pomegranates and pomegranate products. There are now about 30,000 acres of pomegranates in the Valley, more than double the acreage of 2006. Acreage is expected to continue growing. (For more on pomegranate expansion in the SJV, see Angel Red)

The war of claims, words and lawsuits between the Resnicks and the federal government is making for interesting television and tabloid news fodder. How it will impact the growing consumer demand for pomegranates and SJV acreage is an economically compelling issue. Most of the acreage now planted in the Valley is in very young trees with decades of production ahead.

The research money spent by the Resnicks resulted in 55 published papers extolling the health virtues of pomegranates. Pomegranate has long been validated as an antioxidant. The Resnicks used those studies to carry medical claims much farther than that.

These studies linked pomegranates to:

• Reducing bad cholesterol

• Fighting Alzheimer's

• Preventing skin cancer

• Destroying prostate and breast cancer cells

• Solving erectile dysfunction

FDA, FTC challenge POM Wonderful

Earlier this year, the FDA sent a warning letter to POM Wonderful, stating that promotion of those therapeutic benefits is to identify pomegranate as a drug regulated by FDA.

Late last month, the FTC got into POM Wonderful’s face, alleging that POM’s advertisements for its 100 percent pomegranate juice and its POMx supplements contain “false and unsubstantiated claims” about treating or preventing various diseases.

“Any consumer who sees POM Wonderful products as a silver bullet against disease has been misled,” said David Vladeck, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Contrary to POM Wonderful’s advertising, the available scientific information does not prove that POM Juice or POMx effectively treats or prevents these illnesses.”

In its lawsuit against FTC, the Resnicks claim the charges are “completely unwarranted” and accuse the government of violating POM’s constitutional rights.

The government is “wasting taxpayer resources to persecute the pomegranate,” the company said.

In its press statement, POM Wonderful noted pomegranates are a food with both historical usage and evolving research on health effects. The statement added: “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." POM noted there are more than 55 studies on POM products, including 19 clinical trials that have been published in peer-reviewed journals, with more studies in progress.

It is clear the Resnicks are not going to back down. They did not amass a $2 billion fortune by being meek.

They earned their billions marketing Fiji Water and Teleflora, a national flower-delivery service, as well as from Paramount Farms and Suterra, a company which makes pheromone products for agriculture.

Lynda Resnick accused FTC’s Vladeck of having gone "crazy" and of being a "zealot."

"We're going to fight this," said Mrs. Resnick.

Paramount Farms is the world's largest vertically integrated supplier of pistachios and almonds with more than 70,000 acres of pistachio and almond orchards in the San Joaquin Valley. It also farms more than 30,000 acres of citrus along with the pomegranate acreage.

Lost in this battle is the fact that no government agency has said pomegranates are unsafe — just maybe not as miraculously healthy as the Queen of POM proclaims.

If you don’t believe the fight is on, watch the first volley — a new $10 million POM TV campaign featuring a naked and sultry ‘Eve.’ The narrator says that it was a pomegranate, not an apple, that seduced Adam in the Garden of Eden.

Another shows a half-naked sandaled warrior marching over ancient sands. In mythology, says the narrator, eating pomegranates gave men "bodies as solid as bronze."

Mrs. Resnick said the recent launch of the new ad campaign had nothing to do with the government’s recent actions.

Mrs. Resnick was quoted as saying said she would personally testify to POM's benefits for a better sex life. "Stewart and I have a great time, and we're really old," she said.

San Joaquin Valley farmers following the glow of Cleopatra’s ruby red lips down the Nile hope there is no sequel to the story of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.

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