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Petaluma Farms owner responds to lawsuit

Judy and Steve Mahrt perform a quality-control check in their egg-processing facility.

2009 photo by Terry Hankins/ Argus-Courier Staff
Published: Thursday, October 11, 2012 at 1:53 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, October 11, 2012 at 1:53 p.m.

A class action lawsuit accusing local egg farmer Steve Mahrt of marketing “designed to dupe consumers” seems a little like “bullying,” according to Mahrt, the owner of Petaluma Farms.

The lawsuit, filed last week by a student animal activist, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) and Camilla Glover, a member of the Golden Gate University Law School Student Animal Legal Defense Fund (GGUSALDF), claims that Glover is representative of a class of consumers who bought eggs sold by Mahrt of “Petaluma Egg Farm” based on the belief that the hens that produced them were “raised free of cages...” and able to “run, scratch and play in the fresh air of Sonoma Valley.”

According to the lawsuit, Mahrt is “deliberately” trying to fool buyers of “large and extra large eggs” sold under his “Judy's Family Farm” brand with egg cartons depicting “chicks and hens running free in an environment that is reminiscent of days gone by.”

Glover, who declined to be interviewed, claims in the suit that she stopped buying Judy's Family Farm eggs in January when she learned that the hens laying them “live their entire lives inside modern, barren industrial sheds with no grassy fields and no outdoor access.”

Mahrt said this week that he is feeling “bullied” by the legal action. He characterized himself as a “mid-sized” egg producer and third-generation egg farmer, without the legal resources wielded by ALDF. He declined to comment specifically on the allegations in the suit.

“I have been a cage-free egg producer for 30 years,” he said, “In fact, the oldest one in the state and I have been certified organic for over 16 years.

“When I started doing this I was a hero ... I am the same person, my packaging has been the same for 16 years ... ,” he said.

Mahrt said he considers sheltering his uncaged hens and their eggs from the weather, from disease and from predators necessary to take care of them. He added that doing so allows him to produce high-quality eggs at affordable prices. He has never represented his operation as free range, he said.

“What is the benefit to the chicken” of keeping it outside all the time? he asked.

Free-range egg farms are not sustainable for consumers or producers, Mahrt contended, because the process drives egg prices beyond the reach of ordinary buyers.

The ALDF is a self-described national “non-profit organization, founded in 1979 by attorneys,” and focused on protecting animals.

ALDF Executive Director Stephen Wells said that the legal action is an effort to stop egg farmers like Mahrt from “taking advantage” of consumers who care about “animal welfare.”

ALDF Litigation Fellow Christopher Berry initially described Glover as a consumer who was “aware of our group and following its activities.” Later he confirmed that she is a member of a student arm of ALDF.

“It is very common for public interest organizations to represent their members on matters like this since everybody's interests are already aligned,” he said.

Both ALDF's Wells and Berry said the aim of the suit is to make an example of Mahrt to other food producers.

Since the news of the lawsuit was released, “we have heard from lots of consumers who are feeling duped” by Mahrt, Wells said.

Another Petaluma egg farmer, Arnie Riebli, president of the Association of California Egg Farmers, declined comment on the lawsuit, but said he personally thinks “the only people who benefit from class-action lawsuits are the attorneys.”

(Contact Marsha Trent at argus@arguscourier.com)

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