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Animal Rights Groups Sue FDA, USDA Over Egg Cartons

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WASHINGTONStriving to protect the living conditions of hens, animals lovers have sued federal agencies, demanding the government take action to revise labeling requirements for egg cartons.

A lawsuit filed in a California federal court contends labels are misleading because they mischaracterize the treatment animals are receiving. Plaintiffs include Compassion over Killing and Animal Legal Defense Fund, two nonprofit advocacy groups, and several members of the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

"Not only is the egg industry cruelly confining hens in tiny wire cages, it's also deceiving consumers about that abuse," said Cheryl Leahy, general counsel of Compassion over Killing, in a statement March 28. "This misleading marketing needs to stop. Consumers and animals  deserve truth in labeling."

The plaintiffs have filed a number of petitions with federal agencies dating back to 2006, seeking requirements that egg cartons include the disclosure of basic production methods. Such information would let consumers know which eggs originate from hens that were caged, according to the lawsuit. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), two sub-agencies within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have either not responded to the petitions or denied the requests.

Lawsuit Describes Cruel Conditions

The plaintiffs describe cruel living conditions for hens, confined in cages and often deprived of sunlight, notwithstanding statements on egg cartons that depict a more habitable environment. For instance, plaintiff Elizabeth Barrett allegedly purchased a carton of eggs that stated the hens are raised without cages and are free to roam outside when in fact she learned the animals were confined to a barn without windows and only have access to a small sun porch.

The lawsuit is not just about the living conditions of animals. Hens that are raised on a pasture produce eggs that are more nutritious for consumers than eggs that come from animals that were constricted to a small cage, according to the complaint. However, most of America's eggs originate from hens that are confined to roughly sixty-seven square inches of cage floor space, depriving animals the freedom to "roost, move freely, or engage in many other natural behaviors," plaintiffs allege.

Egg Producers Cooperative Pushes for Labeling Production Standard

United Egg Producers (UEP), a cooperative representing the owners of 95 percent of the country's egg-laying hens, which is not involved in the lawsuit, continues to advocate for national legislation (Egg Products Inspection Act) that would set a standard for egg production. The Humane Society of the United States, the National Consumers League, Consumer Federation of America and hundreds of farm groups reportedly support the legislation.

"It would provide not only labeling of eggs based on their production methods (eggs from caged hens", eggs from enriched colony cages", eggs from cage free hens") but also a minimum national standard for housing of hens in enriched colony cages, which provide double the amount of space per hen plus perches, nest boxes and scratch areas," UEP said in a statement Tuesday. "We are hopeful that Congress will pass such legislation this year as part of the overall Farm Bill."

Feds Sit on Petitions for Years

Animal rights groups have been seeking rulemaking petitions that would require specific labeling disclosures on egg cartons, but they said the federal government has either ignored them or denied their requests. According to the complaint, petitions were filed with the FDA in September 2006, the FTC in February 2007, and USDA's Agriculture Marketing Service and Food Safety and Inspection Service in July 2007; updated petitions also were filed in 2008, 2010 and 2011.

Plaintiffs contend the failure of the FDA to respond to a more than six-year-old petition violates the Administrative Procedure Act. The complaint also alleges that denial of petitions by certain government agencies is arbitrary and capricious.  

Representatives of USDA and FTC on Tuesday said the agencies don't comment on pending litigation. FDA didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. 

"In spite of clear Congressional mandates, the massive scale of the egg market, and rampant material misinformation about egg products, the Defendants have taken no action to regulate misleading production method claims on egg cartons," the lawsuit alleges. "To date, the AMS, FSIS, FDA and FTC have failed to issue rules or take ad hoc enforcement actions regarding these misleading claims."

The complaint (Case No. C13-1385) was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, Oakland Division. The case has been assigned to Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler.

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