Chicken farmer beats environmentalists for right to use '100% natural'

A court dismissed environmentalist claims of "concrete injury" for the costs of shaming and refuting Sanderson Farms and its customers for calling its chickens "100% Natural."

The Organic Consumers Association, on behalf of the Friends of the Earth and the Center for Food Safety, filed a fraud lawsuit on June 22, 2017 claiming they were injured by Sanderson Farms' website under several sections of California's Unfair Competition Law and several sections of its Business and Professional Code for false and misleading product advertising not meeting "reasonable consumer expectations."

The environmentalist plaintiffs did not dispute Sanderson Farms' "100% Natural" claims that it does not use steroids, hormones, non-GMO feed, added salt, seaweed, broth, preservatives, or added water in making its "100% Natural" claims for chicken.

But quoting FDA statistics from the Obama administration, the plaintiffs claimed, "Sanderson's chickens have been found to contain residues of antibiotics important for human medicine, residues of veterinary antibiotics."  The suit also claimed the presence of chemicals in Sanderson samples means consumers who "eat Sanderson's Chicken Products, are unknowingly ingesting these antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals."

Shortly after filing the suit, the Friends of the Earth and the Center for Food Safety unleashed an advertising and shaming campaign that included an exposé titled "CHAIN REACTION III," published in September 2017.  The report claimed that with 70 percent of medically important antibiotics used on humans and animals, "we" must make "public calls to action" against the 25 top fast food concerns, their supply chains, their shareholders, and their customers to "stem the rising tide of antibiotic resistance."

"Chain Reaction III" awarded its top fast food company rating of an "A" grade, for restricting antibiotics use, to Chipotle Mexican Grill.  The award came despite a 2015 series of multiple-state customer hospitalizations from norovirus, salmonella, and E. coli. 

Just after the report was published, the online food-borne illnesses self-reporting site revealed that during in August, September, and October of 2017, Chipotle averaged 29 reported illnesses per 100 restaurants.  The rate was six times worse that the next fast food company and ten times worse than the industry average.

Rather than paying ransom to stop the bad publicity, Sanderson Farms chose to fight the lawsuit in a San Francisco federal court.  The company also continued to advertise its products as "100% Natural" and affirmed, "We go beyond the highest animal welfare standards to support the healthy growth of our chickens and the safety of our products."

U.S. district judge Richard Seeborg ruled in favor of defendant Sanderson Farms that the environmental plaintiffs did not "have standing" to file the lawsuit, because they failed to prove how voluntarily spending money on advertising campaigns can equate to a "concrete injury."

In a potential precedent against future California environmentalist suits, Seeborg stated:

Perhaps most damaging to plaintiff's cause are their own depositions where they admit they did not divert resources because of Sanderson's advertising and statement they would have undertaken the same advocacy activities — including advocating against the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture and discouraging consumers from purchasing meat raised with routine antibiotics — even if Sanderson had never aired the challenged advertisements.

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