Think You're Buying Eggs From Chickens That 'Roam, Scratch and Play'? Think Again

A California egg producer is being sued for advertising their egg operation as something it's not.

Chickens enjoying fresh air in an open field. (Photo: Tim Graham/Getty Images)

Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

A large egg producer in California is back in the frying pan thanks to a class-action lawsuit filed by Animal Legal Defense Fund earlier this week.

The animal welfare group is suing Judy’s Family Farm Organic Eggs (also known as Judy’s Eggs), owned by the Petaluma Egg Farm, for false advertising on its egg carton. They text on their package—“These hens are raised in wide open spaces in Sonoma Valley, where they are free to ‘roam, scratch, and play’ ”—is blatantly misleading.

“This isn’t about terms like free-range or cage-free, which are kind of squishy terms” Lisa Franzetta, spokesperson for ALDF, tells TakePart. “The point with the Judy’s case is that people are choosing to purchase this product, and are paying more for it, because they’re given the false impression that those hens are running out in the fields, and are not confined in massive sheds.”

Indeed, aerial images of the facility don’t show much in the way of lush grass or roaming hens. Instead, there’s a telltale pink manure lagoon adjacent to the confinement buildings.

It’s not the first time the large organic egg producer has been in hot water.

Last year, farm policy research group The Cornucopia Institute filed a legal complaint with the USDA, saying Petaluma Egg Farm was violating federal organic standards, and was misleading consumers about the living condition of its hens. That complaint entangled Organic Valley Cooperative, which highlights Judy and Steve’s Egg Farm as a producer. Like Judy’s Eggs, Judy and Steve’s Egg Farm is also a Petaluma Egg Farm brand, as are eggs sold under the Rock Island, Uncle Eddie’s and Golden Circle labels. That’s right—they’re all the same company.

TakePart contacted Organic Valley to verify that the relationship between the two companies is ongoing, but calls and emails were not returned. Petaluma Egg Farm owner Steve Mahrt also did not respond to our interview requests.

Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst at The Cornucopia Institute, tells TakePart that the USDA did not act* on their formal complaint. “They closed our initial complaints without even investigating them (they never even contacted us to secure additional evidence). After a meeting with top brass at the USDA they stated they would reevaluate their position and we resubmitted them. That was months ago and we haven't heard anything since.”

Organic Valley and Cornucopia Institute are not involved in the current lawsuit.

For now, Franzetta says the ALDF is looking for consumers that may have been duped in their purchase of Judy’s Eggs to add to the class-action suit.

“The remedy we’re seeking is for Judy’s Eggs to stop their false advertising. Stop selling consumers an image of what life is like for these hens—an image that isn’t true,” she says. “And that corporations and factory farms will know they’ll be held accountable if they’re engaging in deceptive advertising.”

*Update: A USDA spokesperson provided an update on the Cornucopia complaint against Petaluma Egg Farm after our story was published:  "Cornucopia filed a number of complaints concerning access to the outdoors for poultry at egg operations in 2011, including complaints against Judy and Steve’s Egg Farm (Petaluma) and Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch.  The NOP investigated these complaints and closed them, finding no violations, in February 2012.  Cornucopia has since requested that the NOP reopen these complaints, stating that they have new or additional evidence of violations."

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