Eggs laid by happy hens, with space to frolic and lounge in the sun, are a more attractive buy for many shoppers than eggs from hens caged in factory farms. It’s no wonder, then, that egg producers strive to give the appearance that their hens live the good life.
Too often “appearance” is where the happy ends, as it did at Judy’s Family Farm. Judy’s packaged its eggs in cartons festooned with pictures of hens enjoying expansive grassy fields, accompanied by the statement that the hens are “raised in wide open spaces in Sonoma Valley, where they are free to roam, scratch, and play.”
The reality was different. The hens weren’t outside, but inside. They weren’t raised in wide open spaces — they were crammed together in tight spaces. They weren’t free to roam, scratch, or play. They didn’t even have space to stretch their wings.
The Animal Defense Fund (ALDF) sued Judy’s and its owner, Steven Mahrt, who does business as Petaluma Farms. It alleged that the hens Mahrt sold spent their lives in “modern, barren industrial sheds” with no outdoor access, nothing like what consumers were led to believe. Mahrt essentially admitted as much to a newspaper called the Press Democrat, saying that letting all egg-laying hens outside “doesn’t happen. That doesn’t happen anywhere.”
There are precious few laws that require farmers to give hens adequate space, outdoor access, or something to do. Instead of accusing the defendants of mistreating hens, ALDF got creative and sued the businesses for duping consumers with misleading images and text on their packaging. It sued in California, which has particularly strong consumer protection laws. The defendants agreed to a settlement, though without admitting that they were guilty of false advertising.
The settlement requires two types of amends from the defendants: one is, of course, giving up some money; the other is changing the way they do business. Defendants will pay three non-profit agencies – Sonoma Humane Society, Public Justice Foundation, and Consumer Action – $14,666 each. They will also pay $1,000 to the individual plaintiff and egg-consumer who brought the case with ALDF.
The other piece of the settlement is for the defendants to change the way they do business. Judy’s Eggs cartons will no longer feature a picture of hens. The statement that their hens can roam, scratch, and play, is also gone. This represents an important economic boon to farms that really do provide ample outdoor space for their chickens: consumers who prefer eggs from hens who don’t spend their entire lives in cages will stop buying from Judy’s and start directing their dollars towards businesses with practices that align with their values.
Another way defendants have to change is to gain “Certified Humane” status, which guarantees that they are meeting certain minimum standards of animal welfare. But the settlement also provides that defendants do not need to change their physical plants at all to get this status. In other words, packing chickens in too tightly for them to spread their wings and never letting them outside is considered humane. That is a sad reflection on the state of the law, values, and awareness in our country about factory farming conditions. It also undermines the change in Judy’s egg packaging: if the company can state on its cartons that the eggs within are Certified Humane, it may well hang onto some of those customers who might otherwise give their business to a more humane farm.
From an animal welfare perspective the settlement includes both good news and bad. The bad is that animals can be forced into lives of mind-numbing tedium and physical discomfort, and we call it humane. That places the bar for being humane so low that it will be hard to get meaningful improvements for hens without changes in the law. The good is that ALDF has crafted a new way to go after farms that try to profit off of consumers’ concern for animals without changing their ways: false advertising claims. If farms make hens wretched, the absolute least they can do is be honest about it.
Photo credit: Thinkstock