Monday, March 20, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Whole Foods Ducks PETA’s Suit Over Humane Ads

SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) - A federal judge tossed animal rights group PETA's claims against Whole Foods, finding it failed to prove claims the grocer was misleading customers as to the treatment of the animals that supplied the store with meat.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins sided with Whole Foods in its court battle with the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, finding saying the animal advocate's argument insufficient.

"Although the third amended complaint specifically identifies the contested advertisements, Whole Foods is correct that the complaint fails to allege affirmative misrepresentations or an actionable omission," Cousins wrote in the dismissal.

Cousins has twice dismissed the action, each time giving PETA a chance to amend the complaint to include more specifics.

PETA and Whole Foods shopper Lori Grass sued Whole Foods in September 2015, calling the high-end grocer's five-step animal welfare rating system for meat suppliers a "sham."

Whole Foods rolled out its five-step rating system developed by the Global Animal Partnership in 2009, and expanded it nationwide in 2011. All its suppliers must meet Step 1 standards to sell products in Whole Foods stores, which say its suppliers use "no crates, cages or crowding."

But PETA said suppliers fail to live up to even the lowest standard, and Whole Foods only requires that they submit to one scheduled audit every 15 months.

"They do not have a sufficiently rigorous auditing standard and so they are misrepresenting this program to the public," PETA attorney Christopher Pitoun said at a dismissal hearing April 20. "They say their farmers and ranchers focus on and emphasize good treatment of animals, but there is no way for us to know that."

But Whole Foods says the Global Animal Partnership is recognized by federal agencies as a legitimate certification of ethical treatment of animals, and there is nothing misleading about telling consumers their meet meets such standards.

"The plaintiffs' theory is that a company can say a completely true statement and then be sued for creating a false impression based on a true statement," Whole Foods attorney Brian Blackman said at the same dismissal hearing.

Blackman added that PETA has a pure omissions case, and several similarly situated consumer cases have failed because they failed to show the omission related directly to consumer safety.

Following Cousins' ruling, PETA seized upon the legal rationale for the case's dismissal — which it characterized as "narrow" — as demonstration that the central claims of the case remain valid.

"The court did not consider whether Whole Foods' advertising is misleading but ruled only that Whole Foods does not have to disclose the conditions in which the animals are actually raised and killed because a duty to disclose exists only when consumer safety is at issue," PETA Foundation Director of Animal Law Jared Goodman said in an email to Courthouse News. "Because of the narrow ruling, there is still no question that Whole Foods is misleading well-meaning shoppers into buying meat falsely labeled 'humane' because under the company's standards, animals are raised in conditions that differ little — if at all — from those of standard factory farms."

Goodman said PETA is evaluating its options and characterized the issues raised in the case as a "developing area of law."

Whole Foods' press department did not respond to an email requesting comment by press time.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.