An administrative law judge has apparently begun hearing a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) complaint alleging that POM Wonderful LLC makes false and unsubstantiated claims that its pomegranate juice products will prevent or treat “heart disease, prostate cancer, and erectile dysfunction.” According to a news source, the government opened its case by asserting that the studies on which the company relied do not support the marketing claims and that its executives “repeatedly ignored warning signs that the marketing didn’t match the science.”

Food and beverage companies and advertisers are reportedly watching the dispute closely; if the agency prevails, the companies will have to support their advertising with more scientific evidence. POM contends that its product claims are supported by $35 million in research and that the company has “sponsored or participated in more than 90 scientific investigations with over 65 studies on POM products, including 17 clinical trials.” POM will also try to show that the FTC’s complaint violates the company’s First Amendment free speech rights.

New York University Nutrition Professor Marion Nestle is following the case on her blog. She was quoted as saying, “It’s so unregulated. The standards have gotten lower and lower and lower. You can’t sell food without a health claim nowadays. Nobody will buy it.” She said that if POM prevails, it would be “open season on health claims, and companies can say anything they want.” It is anticipated that the hearing will continue over the next four months. See Food Politics, May 23, 2011; Bloomberg, May 24, 2011.