Perdue Farms labeled “frivolous” a lawsuit filed against the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service by the Animal Legal Defense Fund alleging FSIS allowed Perdue to use misleading labels on its Fresh Line chicken and turkey products.
The lawsuit was filed June 8 in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
“This is a frivolous lawsuit. We redesigned our packaging in 2018 to inspire and connect with a new generation of shoppers. The contemporary design has playful illustrations and vibrant colors, and highlights trusted product attributes like no-antibiotics-ever, 100-percent vegetarian diets with no animal by-products, raised cage free, and with no hormones or steroids,” Perdue said in an email to The Food Institute.
“This re-brand is 3 years old and only our fourth major packaging update in the history of the brand. At the time of the update, we did a comprehensive consumer survey that showed there was no misrepresentation on our packaging.”
The lawsuit, however, alleges the labeling approved by FSIS depicted chicken and turkeys roaming freely outdoors when in reality they were in warehouses on factory farms. The lawsuit charges the FSIS with failing to consider the imagery conveyed on labels, concentrating instead on product statements and claims, to the detriment of consumers. It accuses the agency of “turning a blind eye to Perdue’s Fresh Line label imagery [allowing] the company to mislead consumers with images that falsely represent that chickens and turkeys sold as Perdue products were afforded access to the outdoors.”
The complaint adds: “Defendants’ actions enabling Perdue and other sellers to mislead consumers about the treatment and living conditions of chickens and turkeys used for their products impede and frustrate ALDF’s mission-driven activities to curtail the inhumane, large-scale confinement of these birds.”
The suit seeks a court order directing the FSIS to review graphics, as well as claims, on labels. It also seeks attorneys fees and court costs, but does not specify damages.
“The USDA has a legal responsibility to ensure animal product sellers are labeling their products accurately,” ALDF Executive Director Stephen Wells said in a press release. “Consumers are willing to pay more for higher standards of animal care – and companies like Perdue are taking unfair advantage of consumer sentiment by pushing a false narrative on their packaging.”
Laurie Beyranevend, director of the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law School, said she thinks depictions on labels, whether photos or drawings, can, indeed mislead consumers.
“The particular labels at issue depict chickens and turkeys in what appears to be a green field with a fence, a barn, and some clouds suggesting the animals are outside at some point in their lives when in fact, the poultry at issue has been raised entirely indoors,” she said in an email.
“Even if Perdue isn’t making overtly false claims about its products, the imagery included on the label might suggest to some consumers that the animals have been raised under different and seemingly more humane conditions inducing the purchase of a product those consumers might not otherwise buy.”
Mary Hallerman, a partner at the law firm Snell & Wilmer, said in an email the ALDF suit takes a different approach than similar suits filed in recent years.
“Courts have dismissed several of those cases at the pleadings stage on the ground that reasonable consumers would not take away the message that the plaintiff claimed the packaging or labelling conveyed,” Hallerman said. “Animal Legal Defense Fund presumably knows this and chose instead to challenge the sufficiency of the USDA’s review of the imagery used on poultry labels under the Administrative Procedure Act.”