Have you ever wondered what labels like "humanely raised" and "cage free" mean when you're looking at a package of meat or eggs at the supermarket? Do corporations actually live up to the claims on the labels?
Well, a consumer class action lawsuit in New Jersey is trying to bring a little truth to labeling when it comes to the humane treatment of animals. The lawsuit alleges that Perdue Farms, Inc. has misled consumers by advertising its Harvestland brand of chickens as "humane." The suit was filed by two consumer members of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) on behalf of a group of consumers. The case has been cleared to move forward by a federal court in New Jersey and will be heard later this year.
The case alleges that Perdue's labels violate the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (CFA). This is a powerful law to protect consumers from fraud in a number of areas. In 2011, for example, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the CFA applies to mortgage loans, including a lender's activities post-foreclosure-judgment, granting treble damages to the plaintiff in the foreclosure case Gonzalez v. Wilshire Credit Corp.
Lawsuit Claims Chickens Are Not Raised or Slaughtered Humanely
The main thrust of the lawsuit is that, contrary to the claim that the birds are "humanely raised," during slaughtering, Harvestland's chickens are "shackled by their legs, upside-down, while fully conscious; electrically shocked before being effectively rendered unconscious; cut ineffectively or partially while fully conscious; drowned/scalded while conscious"; and that when they are being raised, they are "stored in trucks for hours under excessive temperatures; subject to lighting conditions which result in eye disorders; injured in the process of being removed from their shells; subject to health problems and deformities due to selective breeding; and provided no veterinary care."
One of the lead plaintiffs, Nadine Hemy, alleged that she would not have purchased the "premium-priced" chicken if she knew the chicken was "not in fact treated humanely," according to documents from the case.
Perdue's Harvestland brand of chickens are labeled prominently both as "humanely raised" and "USDA process verified." The suit alleges that this misleads consumers by implying that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has verified that the birds are raised humanely. In fact, there is no legal mandate that requires the USDA to ensure humane slaughter of birds in facilities used by Perdue or other commercial poultry processors because there are no official humane slaughter poultry regulations. Poultry falls outside the protections of the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, the law which applies to pork and beef, so there are no mandatory federal standards for the slaughter of poultry.
Inhumane Practices Allowed by Industry-Derived "Animal Welfare Guidelines"
The National Chicken Council (NCC) is the poultry industry trade group, which created voluntary "Animal Welfare Guidelines" for poultry processors. Perdue's "humane" claim is based on standards "not meaningfully different" from these industry-derived standards, according to HSUS. The plaintiffs allege that these standards "necessitate inhumane treatment" and foster non-compliance "huge loopholes" and a lack of independent monitoring and enforcement.
According to advocacy groups like the Animal Welfare Institute, the NCC's guidelines were industry-driven, included no input from animal welfare advocacy groups, and are completely insufficient to ensure humane treatment. Temple Grandin, who revolutionized livestock processing and slaughtering to try to make it more humane, calls the guidelines and scoring system "so lax that it allows plants or farms with really bad practices to pass."
Court Denies Perdue's Motion to Dismiss the Case
A federal court in New Jersey issued a decision on March 31, 2013 that denied all the arguments in Perdue's motion to dismiss the case clearing it to move forward, according to HSUS staff attorney Kate Levy. The HSUS is not a plaintiff in the case, but the two lead plaintiffs in the class are HSUS members, and they are represented by HSUS staff attorneys as well as Washington, DC law firm Tycko & Zavareei LLP and New Jersey attorney David M. Wacksman.
Levy told CMD that the plaintiffs have asked the court to enjoin Perdue from further use of the "humanely raised" label as well as for compensatory and punitive damages. "In response to growing consumer demand for humane treatment of animals," Levy said, "Perdue and others are attempting to maximize profits by making claims about humane treatment, but slapping a label on a package does not mean that livestock are being raised humanely."
This article has been updated to include a more nuanced description of the laws governing humane slaughter of livestock.