When it comes to chicken, the truth isn't so simple after all.
Supermarket giant Kroger Co. faces a potential class-action lawsuit for allegedly deceiving consumers about farming practices with its “Simple Truth” brand of chicken products. A consumer in California filed a suit against the company earlier this month at a Superior Court in Los Angeles and is seeking class-action status, reported Reuters.
The suit alleges that Kroger deliberately misled consumers with labeling on its Simple Truth chicken products that claimed the animals were raised in a “cage-free” and “humane environment” when in fact, the case claims, the chickens were raised under standard commercial farming practices that involve packed pens and electrocution before slaughter.
The Simple Truth line of products are marketed as "honest, easy to understand and affordable choices" to consumers at Kroger’s stores and sold at a premium. The chickens used for the products in question were raised by Perdue, the country’s third-largest poultry producer, on behalf of Kroger, the nation’s leading grocer.
“Looking to profit from growing consumer awareness of, and concern with, the treatment of farm animals raised for meat production, Kroger engaged in a deceptive and misleading marketing scheme to promote its ‘Simple Truth’ store brand chicken as having been sourced from chickens raised ‘cage free in a humane environment’,” reads the complaint.
In order to use the term "cage free," poultry farmers only have to prove to USDA regulators that the animals have access to the outdoors. There are no more specific regulations about how often the animals access the outdoor space or how large it must be. Animal Welfare Guidelines from the National Chicken Council, an industry advocacy group, state that commercial broiler chickens should be housed in open structures that provide less than one square foot of space per bird (about 0.80 of a square foot to be exact).
The other term in question—used widely in the grocery store meat department—is even fuzzier. Producers and marketers can decide for themselves how to use the word “humane” on livestock product labels since the USDA does not define that term under any specific regulation.
The Kroger suit highlights the difficulties consumers face in choosing products that meet their ethical and environmental expectations when the marketing terms they search for—organic, natural, humane—are, in effect, regulatory gray areas.
Responding to a request for comment, Kroger spokesman Keith Dailey told Reuters: “What we have on our Simple Truth chicken label is information for our customers that we believe is accurate, and we intend to vigorously defend our label."
A New Jersey court decision in a similar case against Perdue last year could bode well for the plaintiffs in the Kroger case. In 2010 the Humane Society of the United States filed a suit on behalf of New Jersey consumers against Perdue for "false and deceptive" marketing related to the “humane” label on its Harvestland brand of chickens. In March of last year a federal judge cleared the suit to move forward as a class-action lawsuit.
Lauren is a freelance writer based in New Orleans. She has covered a wide array of geographies and topics, from economic and business developments in the Arabian Gulf, to arts and culture in Turkey, to social enterprise and the microfinance sector in Southeast Asia. She's also worked on the business side of things, with two years experience in strategy and marketing at a large renewable energy firm. Keep in touch: @laurenzanolli and firstname.lastname@example.org.