SAN FRANCICO (CN) - A federal judge declined to order the federal government to require egg producers to label egg cartons according to how they treat their hens.
Lead plaintiff Compassion Over Killing sued the Food and Drug Administration, asking that egg cartons be labeled as either "free range," "cage free" or "eggs from caged hens."
Compassion claimed that eggs produced by hens raised in "battery cage systems" tend to be nutritionally inferior and carry a greater risk of salmonella contamination.
It also claimed that labeling methods are misleading, using images or phrases suggesting that hens were raised in outdoor conditions with space to move freely, when the hens were in fact raised in battery cages.
Compassion claims that egg producers have a strong incentive to use misleading labeling, because more than 80 percent of consumers prefer to buy eggs they perceive as coming from humanely treated hens.
The Food and Drug Administration responded that it was not authorized to regulate egg labeling "based only upon consumer interest in animal welfare (as opposed to reasons relating to safety or nutrition)."
The FDA also claimed that there is "insufficient evidence of material differences in nutritional content and food safety that could be attributed solely to the use of cages in egg production," and that the requested rulemaking "was not a priority given the constraints on the agency's resources."
U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria on Dec. 23 denied Compassion's request for summary judgment and granted the FDA's cross-motion for summary judgment.
Chhabria ruled that courts "must afford an agency's discretionary decision not to initiate rulemaking the highest possible level of deference."
"In light of this standard, the court cannot say that any of the respective denials of the plaintiff's petitions were arbitrary and capricious."
Plaintiffs' attorney Carter Dillon told Courthouse News in an email that the judge made several "obvious errors," which the plaintiffs will appeal.
"The Obama administration's decision to keep consumers from knowing where their eggs come from is not only sad and misguided, it's illegal," Dillon said.
Dillon is an attorney with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, of Cotati, Calif.