The makers of POM Wonderful, the pomegranate drink that has dominated the niche premium juice market since it was introduced in 2002, have vowed to cease animal testing in the face of pressure from animal rights groups and a leading supermarket chain.

"POM Wonderful pomegranate juice has ceased all animal testing, and we have no plans to do so in the future," owners Stuart and Lynda Resnick wrote in a letter that was sent to retailers and media outlets last week.

The move comes after Whole Foods Market Inc., the nation's largest natural foods grocery chain, two weeks ago threatened to yank the juice from store shelves unless the company stopped testing on animals. The campaign was initiated by activists from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

POM has funded research, some of which was conducted at UCLA, in order to back up its claims of the fruit juice's benefits. PETA representatives charged baby mice were deprived of oxygen and rabbits' arteries were cut during the testing.

The Resnicks own Roll International Corp., the parent of POM Wonderful and are among the area's wealthiest individuals. Stewart Resnick was No. 39 on the Business Journal's list of wealthiest Angelenos last year, with a net worth of $950 million. The company owns Fiji Water, floral delivery service Teleflora and pistachio and almond farms, and recently sold off the Franklin Mint coin company.

"In our quest to discover how pomegranate juice can help treat human diseases and conditions such as arteriolosclerosis, prostate cancer, erectile dysfunction and birth defects, it was sometimes necessary to fund animal testing," the Resnicks said in the letter.

Over the last eight years, the letter stated, 12 human studies were completed, with two still in progress and another three to begin this year. All animal studies ended last year, according to the company.

"In good faith, we could not advise our consumers of the healing properties of the pomegranate without first funding human research to confirm or deny the initial findings," the letter read.

PETA, however, responded to the Resnicks' letter with a statement of its own, questioning POM's pledge to cease the testing and refusing to back off from its boycott until Roll International issued an assurance that neither the company nor its subsidiaries would fund animal research.

"Once this assurance is given to us or placed on your Web site, we will contact all retailers that are continuing to boycott POM and our supporters to let them know that our campaign against POM is over," the statement read.

In defending the research, Roll said only about $4 million of its total $20 million medical research investment targeted animals and that it was a necessary step prior to testing on humans.

"This is likely a liability issue," said John Young, a veterinarian and director of comparative medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. "Lawyers would probably say you'd better have data to back up these marketing claims or someone could sue us."

Long, bitter fight

The campaign against the juice makers began months ago on the East Coast and was at times bitter and threatening.

The company won a court injunction last fall against activists who were harassing POM employees at their homes. Fiona Posell, vice president of corporate communications, resigned last month after months of harassment from activists, including verbal threats allegedly made against her and her children.

In December, the radical Animal Rights Militia posted a letter online that claimed 487 bottles of POM Wonderful juice in East Coast supermarkets had been poisoned and that drinking the juice would make consumers ill. Wild Oats Inc., the nation's second-largest natural foods grocer, took the juice from its shelves. Subsequent testing showed no signs of tampering and a Wild Oats spokesperson said last week that the juices were back in stock.

The L.A. County protests were milder. PETA spokeswoman and Malibu resident Pamela Anderson asked fans to boycott POM juices in a posting on her Web site, and Malibu eatery John's Garden stopped carrying the juices early this month.

The campaign took a toll, and the long-term damage to the company's reputation and the juice brand remain to be seen.

To salvage its image, POM has hired damage control public relations firm Sitrick & Co. The company is known for representing clients with high-profile crisis management concerns, like the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese.

POM Wonderful owns more than half of the 15,000 pomegranate acres under cultivation in the U.S., according to the Pomegranate Council, a non-profit trade group in San Francisco.

Over the past seven years, POM Wonderful planted thousands of pomegranate trees in the San Joaquin Valley, doubling the commercial market's size.

The company said it has spent $125 million in planting pomegranate groves, building and operating processing facilities and developing patents. It has spent roughly $20 million on medical research, about $4 million of which went to animal testing.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.