Animal Welfare Labeling Can Be Litigation Trap for Farms, Food Industry and Restaurants

October 2, 2019Alerts

Including animal care standards in advertising, on websites and in labeling is a growing trend among food-related businesses that can have unintended – and costly – consequences.

Animal rights organizations pressure animal agriculture businesses to include such statements, ostensibly to avoid negative publicity campaigns and protests. Targets include producers of beef, dairy products, eggs,poultry and pork, as well as goat and sheep farmers. Similarly, food manufacturers, distributors and restaurant chains are pressed to advertise that their suppliers comply with certain animal welfare standards.

Of course, the humane care of livestock and poultry is of primary concern to producers and the food sector, but businesses should be aware that many animal rights activists believe that any treatment of animals raised for human consumption is inhumane.

Several of these organizations target farmers, biomedical research facilities and animal breeders in undercover investigations after obtaining employment under false pretenses. They claim that their Constitutional First Amendment rights protect this conduct.

In federal litigation in North Carolina, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) admitted that they have used undercover investigators to gather video and audio evidence of what they believe to be unethical or illegal treatment of animals.

AnimalRecoveryMission (ARM), another activist organization, also conducts undercover investigations. Following their undercover investigation at Fair Oaks Farms, a dairy farm in Indiana, Newton County Prosecutor Jeff Drinski said, “Detectives had evidence that ARM’s undercover investigator coerced or encouraged workers to hurt calves for the sake for a series of videos.”

Despite that, Fair Oaks, its affiliates and joint venture partner were named as defendants in class action lawsuits filed after release of the videos, alleging violations of state deceptive and false advertising statutes as well as unfair competition and fraud. The suits cited the defendants’ promises of humane care and animal welfare advertising, alleging that consumers relied on those promises when purchasing their products, and that the videos taken by ARM revealed the statements to be deceptive, constituting false advertising.

Plaintiffs attorneys trolling for class actions related to product labeling claims is nothing new. But these lawsuits present a troubling new twist by capitalizing on the pressure placed on animal agriculture producers, intermediate manufacturers and end retailers to commit to animal welfare statements and labels. This is now increasingly combined with video created by undercover activists — whether accurately portrayed or not.

In light of this trend, businesses should carefully review their animal care and handling statements, policies and related labeling and should remind relevant staff of the criticality of proper and humane care. Security at farms and hiring practices should also be reviewed.