Court Nixes ‘Free-Range Eggs’ Label Rule

Animal rights advocates lost of federal appeal intended to force egg producers to label egg cartons with the conditions in which egg-laying hens are kept, specifying free-range, cage-free or from caged hens.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a ruling that neither the Agricultural Marketing Service nor the Food Safety and Inspection Service had authority to impose such rules. The panel also found that the Federal Trade Commission reasonably denied the requested rules because of limited evidence to show deceptive practices by the egg industry.

The panel did find that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration “barely met its low burden” to clearly indicate it considered the potential problem the animal rights groups identified, but nonetheless the court upheld the FDA decision. The groups lost at that point.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund and Compassion Over Killing sued in San Francisco to seek federal rules from the four agencies to develop regulations that would require all egg cartons to bear the labels “Free-range eggs,” “cage-free eggs” or “eggs from caged hens.”

The purpose was to alert consumers about the conditions of the hens. The groups presented samples of egg cartons that implied hens were raised in cage-free environments with phrases such as “all natural” or “animal friendly,” but were misleading to consumers.

The groups also maintained that eggs from caged hens are nutritionally inferior to free-range hen eggs and carry a greater risk of Salmonella contamination.

The FDA maintained that the groups failed to provide persuasive evidence that eggs from caged hens are either less nutritious or more likely to be contaminated with Salmonella than eggs from free-range hen eggs.

The court did say the FDA is required to indicate it considered the potential problem and explain why it will not use its discretion to create a new rule. “The FDA’s explanation for denying plaintiffs’ rulemaking petition barely meets this low burden,” wrote Judge Mary Murguia.

“The FDA could have better addressed plaintiffss’ evidence of misleading representations that appear on egg cartons to demonstrate that the agency fully appreciated one of the primary bases for plaintiffs’ rulemaking petition – that information concerning egg-laying hens’ living conditions is necessary in order to correct the affirmative representations that frequently appear on egg labels and convey misleading information,” said Murguia.

But in the end, the court said it saw no reason to send the case back to the FDA to reconsider its decision.

Murguia was joined by Judges Michael Daly Hawkins and Marsha Berzon.

Case: Compassion Over Killing v. FDA, No. 15-15107



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