Animal Welfare Group Sues "Organic" Factory Farm Operator Alleging Misleading and Fraudulent Labeling
The Animal Legal Defense Fund (ADLF) filed a class-action lawsuit, on Oct. 1, alleging that packaging used for Judy’s Eggs mistakenly leads consumers to believe the eggs come from free-range hens.
The Cornucopia Institute had previously filed a formal legal complaint (pending) with the USDA regarding alleged violations of federal organic regulations by Petaluma Farms and the organic eggs they market as Judy’s Eggs. They also produce and package eggs for theOrganic Valley brand.
"We hope this new legal action will be a wake-up call for the Obama USDA and that they will now aggressively enforce the law, protecting ethical organic farmers from competitive injury and consumers from fraudulent exploitation," said Mark A. Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute.
The Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group with over 7,000 members, is thought to represent more certified organic farmers, including organic egg producers, than any other nonprofit in the nation.
"We will not tolerate ethical organic family farmers being placed at a competitive disadvantage because they are following the law," affirmed Kastel.
Organic standards state that organic livestock producers must "establish and maintain living conditions which accommodate the health and natural behavior of animals, including year-round access for all animals to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air and direct sunlight suitable to the species” [emphasis added].
Lacking enforcement action by the USDA Cornucopia's organic egg scorecard rates companies that market name-brand and private-label organic "shell" eggs based on 22 criteria that are important to organic consumers. "The scorecard is designed to create marketplace pressure rewarding the heroes in the organic farming movement and enabling consumers and wholesale buyers to make discerning purchasing decisions in the marketplace" Kastel added.
Evidence gathered by The Cornucopia Institute, including photos and satellite imagery, indicates that the laying hens at Petaluma's industrial-scale facility are confined indoors to their barns. The owner of Petaluma, Steve Mahrt, has confirmed in media interviews that his birds are managed in confinement. Although in conflict with federal law, he's quoted as saying, "What I’m doing is what I think is the safest system for our consumers and for our hens."
In a similar consumer fraud class action, in early September, Aurora Organic Dairy paid $7.5 million to settle a class action lawsuit regarding fraudulent marketing claims concerning organic milk. In that matter, during the Bush administration, although the USDA found 14 serious violations of the organic standards, and career civil servants at the agency recommended decertification, political appointees allowed Aurora to continue in business with modifications to their operations and a one-year probation.
"Although lobbyists and campaign contributions can have a discernible impact in Washington they obviously cannot buy off dedicated organic consumers, and their independent lawyers," Kastel lamented. "With both Aurora and Petaluma we are seeing that there is a higher authority in this country than the USDA—and that's loyal and passionate families that buy organic food."
The ALDF's web posting, and link to their press release, appears below…
You’ve probably seen “cage-free,” “free-range,” and “pastured,” on egg packages in your local markets. But what exactly do these phrases mean? Free ranging hens frolicking in sunny pastures? Or hens crowded together in confined spaces? The Animal Legal Defense Fund is headed to court to ensure egg producers don’t get away with deceiving well-intentioned consumers with misleading packaging.
ALDF is filing a class-action lawsuit against California egg producers Judy’s Family Farm Organic Eggs (“Judy’s Eggs”), owned by Petaluma Egg Farm, for false advertising. As you can see, the packaging implies hens have access to a natural outdoor environment. Children sit amidst green grass on a sunny day. A butterfly floats above, as a happy little hen roams freely with her chicks.
As Michael Pollan references in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Petaluma Egg Farm “has clearly mastered the conventions of Supermarket Pastoral.”
Who could begrudge a farmer named Judy $3.59 for a dozen organic eggs she presumably has to get up at dawn each morning to gather? Just how big and sophisticated an operation Petaluma Eggs really is I was never able to ascertain: The company was too concerned about biosecurity to let a visitor get past the office.
Hens that can "roam, scratch, and play" in wide open spaces? (Photo by Ian Elwood)
This pastoral kitsch sounds nice, but in reality, Judy’s “Family Farm” is an industrial shed where hens are imprisoned indoors and can never step foot in the wide open fields of Sonoma Valley in their lives.
Cage-free is not cruelty-free. Concerned consumers aren’t just buying the product—they’re buying the story behind the product, and the promise that these hens lead decent lives with outdoor access.
Cage-free life at Petaluma Egg Farm—where is the roaming, scratching, and playing?
With this deception comes substantial profit for companies like Judy’s Eggs. But it also violates California consumer protection laws and means an unfair disadvantage for legitimately free-range businesses. Meanwhile, these falsehoods allow producers to profit from the suffering of hens.
(Photo by Ian Elwood)
ALDF believes consumers have a right to know what they are purchasing. ALDF filed the case as a class-action on behalf of all consumers who bought Judy’s Eggs under the mistaken belief that the hens can roam outdoors. This allows all harmed consumers to recoup monetary damages that could total millions of dollars and send a strong signal to the industry that misrepresentations about animal welfare will not be tolerated.
“The lack of clarity regarding ‘cage-free’ and ‘free-range’ eggs is one of the reasons why this false advertising lawsuit is so important,” says Chris Berry, ALDF litigation fellow. “However, the best way to ensure your choices don’t harm animals is to reduce or eliminate eggs from your diet.”
· If you purchased Judy’s Eggs mistakenly believing the hens had outdoor access, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org today.
Mark A. Kastel
The Cornucopia Institute
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