Food

The "POM" Pomegranate Scam: The Truth Behind the Company and Its Billionaire Owners

The FTC says POM Wonderful has engaged in deceptive advertising. Now the company is doubling down on its false claims.

POM Wonderful first hit grocery store shelves in the early aughts, making pomegranate juice accessible to the average American. The stuff is tasty, to be sure, but what makes it popular among shoppers is the company’s marketing, particularly its ads touting the pomegranate's unique, disease-fighting powers.

These health claims are now under scrutiny by the Federal Trade Commission, which recently concluded that POM Wonderful has engaged in deceptive advertising by printing claims not backed up by scientific research. The research in question was funded by none other than POM Wonderful, to the tune of more than $35 million.

To make matters worse, POM Wonderful is now doubling down on its false claims. This week the company put out ads, including a full-pager in the New York Times, that include out-of-context quotes from the recent FTC decision. In the decision, an FTC judge concluded that POM had violated federal law by making false claims about its products’ ability to “treat, prevent, or reduce the risk of heart disease, prostate cancer, and erectile dysfunction.” But you wouldn’t know that from this ad:

POM

Food Politics blogger Marion Nestle, who has been closely following the POM Wonderful vs. FTC saga since the FTC filed its complaint back in September, puts the quotes in context for us. For instance:

The POM ad quotes from the chief administrative law judge’s decision:

"Competent and reliable scientific evidence supports the conclusion that the consumption of pomegranate juice and pomegranate extract supports prostate health, including by prolonging PSA doubling time in men with rising PSA after primary treatment for prostate cancer (page 282)."

I turned immediately to page 282. The sentence before the one quoted would seem to support it:

"The basic research, the Pantuck Study, and the Carducci Study, relied on by Respondents [POM Wonderful], support the conclusion that pomegranate juice has a beneficial effect on prostate health."

But what follows the quotation makes it clear that although the research claims to support the effect, it really doesn’t. Here’s what immediately follows the quotation in the same paragraph:

"However, the greater weight of the persuasive expert testimony shows that the evidence relied upon by Respondents is not adequate to substantiate claims that the POM Products treat, prevent, or reduce the risk of prostate cancer or that they are clinically proven to do do so. Indeed, the authors of the Pantuck Study and the Carducci study each testified that their study did not conclude that POM juice treats, prevents, or reduces the risk of prostate cancer. And, as Respondents’ expert conceded, no clinical studies, research and/or trials show definitely that the POM Products treat, prevent, or reduce the risk of prostate cancer."

You can see all of POM Wonderful’s new ads on its new, slickly designed and ironically named Web site, POMTruth.org.

The Billionaires Behind POM Wonderful

POM Wonderful is a part of Roll International, an umbrella company that also controls flower company Teleflora and "luxury" bottled water brand Fiji, among other companies. Roll International is owned by Stewart and Lynda Resnick, a Los Angeles billionaire power couple who are known for both living and giving lavishly. In a 2008 profile of Lynda Resnick (subscription required), the New Yorker’s Amanda Fortini said the Resnicks’ enormous Beverly Hills mansion, known as Sunset House, is “so ornate it looks unreal.” Lynda Resnick brags about her impressive connections -- her rolodex is packed with Hollywood and big business VIPs -- and drops millions like they’re nothing (“Anything over twenty-five million dollars, we talk,” she said of her business relationship with her husband). The Resnicks are also big wigs on the LA charity scene, having given millions to local museums and other institutions.

In addition to spending big bucks on their home and their philanthropic pursuits, the Resnicks have been major donors to Democratic politicians. In some cases, those donations appear to have helped the Resnicks curry favor within the government. According to a 2009 report by Lance Williams for the Center for Investigative Reporting, Stewart Resnick’s years of donations to Sen. Dianne Feinstein seem to have helped Resnick call in a favor to the Obama administration: a $750,000 reexamination of an environmental protection plan for the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. As the owner of Paramount Farms, Resnick is one of the biggest growers in California, and the Delta environmental plan would have hampered Paramount’s irrigation potential.

In their business life, Stewart Resnick is reportedly the buyer and seller of businesses, while Lynda Resnick is the one with the sharp marketing sense. Indeed, it was Lynda Resnick who gave POM Wonderful its catchy name, helped develop its alluring packaging and pushed hard for it to be marketed as “a new category of food” -- a mega-healthy super-drink that belongs in the produce section, chilled, alongside the fruits and vegetables. She is the one who wanted to fund all that scientific research into the health benefits of pomegranate juice, and in turn use that research to sell POM Wonderful as something that, according to the FTC at least, it is not.

More Dubious Marketing

POM Wonderful isn’t the only Resnick product whose marketing raises eyebrows. Remember that the Resnicks’ company, Roll International, also owns Fiji Water. In a 2009 investigative report for Mother Jones, journalist Anna Lenzer described her trip to Fiji -- the island nation, and also the water bottling plant. As Lenzer details, Fiji’s deliberate and successful attempt to position itself as more “high-end” and “pure” than other bottled waters is not only disingenuous, it's morally reprehensible, given that many Fijians lack access to potable water.

Nowhere in Fiji Water's glossy marketing materials will you find reference to the typhoid outbreaks that plague Fijians because of the island's faulty water supplies; the corporate entities that Fiji Water has -- despite the owners' talk of financial transparency -- set up in tax havens like the Cayman Islands and Luxembourg; or the fact that its signature bottle is made from Chinese plastic in a diesel-fueled plant and hauled thousands of miles to its ecoconscious consumers. And, of course, you won't find mention of the military junta for which Fiji Water is a major source of global recognition and legitimacy.

Fiji Water touts its corporate philanthropy in Fiji, and is quick to mention the economic benefits the company brings to the country, but, as Lenzer notes, “though Fiji Water may fill a void in the impoverished nation, it also reaps a priceless benefit: tax-free status, granted when the company was founded in 1995....And when Fiji has tried to wring a bit of extra revenue from the company, the response has been less than cooperative. Last year, when the government attempted to impose a new tax on water bottlers, Fiji Water called it "draconian" (a term it's never used for the regime's human rights violations) and temporarily shut down its plant in protest.”

What Now For Consumers?

The FTC ruling on POM Wonderful’s false health claims has revived a long-standing debate about the legitimacy of corporate-sponsored scientific research. As Marion Nestle wrote recently, “It is not difficult to design research studies to give sponsors the answers they want and to make sure they are conducted well. POM is getting the best research that money can buy.”

Even though the FTC judge ruled that POM Wonderful had made false claims, he did notorder the company to get FDA pre-approval of its claims going forward, as originally proposed, nor did he require that the company rely on double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled studies, as is the standard for pharmaceuticals. It’s a decision that has implications for the health food industry on the whole, to be sure. POM Wonderful claims those implications are positive, but consumers should be wary.

Given the company’s latest ad campaign, it seems unlikely that POM Wonderful will change its ways any time soon. But we can hope that the recent battle with the FTC opened consumers’ eyes to the false health claims that POM Wonderful, and so many food companies, make every day -- and the lengths to which they will go to propagate those falsehoods.

Lauren Kelley is the activism and gender editor at AlterNet and a freelance journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Salon, Time Out New York, the L Magazine, and other publications. Follow her on Twitter.