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Petaluma egg farm settles packaging suit

Petaluma Farms will drop the bucolic farm scene from its Judy's Family Farm egg carton packaging after being sued for false advertising by a county animal rights group.

The image in question depicted a cartoon farm with children feeding chickens on an open stretch of grass. The Cotati-based Animal Legal Defense Fund said these drawings gave consumers the impression that Judy's eggs came from free range chickens. The inside of the carton also states that the hens are free to "scratch, roam and play in wide open spaces," when in reality the cage-free fowl are housed inside large, open poultry barns.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund filed a class action lawsuit against Petaluma Farms in October 2012, seeking unspecified monetary damages and an order requiring the farm to change its cartons. This week, without admitting any wrongdoing, the Petaluma Farms agreed to change its packaging and donate $44,000 to be split equally between the Sonoma Humane Society, the Public Justice Foundation and Consumer Action.

"A reasonable consumer could read the packaging and walk away with the impression that Judy's eggs came from chickens that were roaming free," said Animal Legal Defense Fund lead attorney Chris Berry. "The point of the lawsuit wasn't just to set an example. It was to make sure there wasn't any advertising that was misleading to the general consumer and we've accomplished that."

But Petaluma Farms owners Judy and Steve Mahrt said the cover of their egg cartons was an artist's interpretation of their childhood on poultry farms and that their hens are advertised as cage free, not free range.

"Our barns provide plenty of space for our hens to indulge in their natural instincts of roaming, scratching and dust bathing," the Mahrts said in a statement released in mid-January, which also pointed out that the eggs are not advertised as coming from "free range or pastured" chickens, though the lawsuit claimed that customers were duped into thinking the poultry raised outdoors.

"We believe our customers are more intelligent than that, and that our customers purchased our eggs because they wanted an alternative to eggs from caged hens raised with antibiotics and pesticide/herbicide-grown grains," the statement read.

Berry said the Animal Legal Defense Fund asked the Mahrts to change their packaging several times before filing the lawsuit, but was unable to reach an agreement with the farmers.

Steve Mahrt called the settlement a "huge amount of money" for his small operation, but declined to comment further on the matter. Mahrt is the sponsor of the Cutest Chick Contest at the Butter and Eggs Days Festival.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com.)


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