PETA backs suit against Grafton County egg company over hens’ pens

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 3/16/2019 10:26:35 PM

MONROE, N.H. — Pete and Gerry’s Eggs has built its reputation in the egg industry and among consumers on an image of its ethical treatment of organic egg-laying hens.

Now a lawsuit funded by an animal rights organization is accusing the company of misleading customers.

The egg company’s president is fighting back and contends that his company is a target of opportunity in the organizations effort to promote veganism.

The PETA Foundation is providing financial support for a lawsuit filed in federal court in New York that alleges that the Grafton County-based organic egg distribution and marketing company misleads consumers about the eggs sold under Pete and Gerry’s Nellie’s Free Range Eggs label.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of four New York plaintiffs, argues that Pete and Gerry’s is deceiving consumers with its packaging and marketing materials as to how it treats the hens that produce the eggs it sells across the country.

“Plaintiffs believed they were buying and eating eggs from laying hens that enjoyed lives free from unnecessary pain and distress, had access to green fields, space to spread their wings and engage in natural behaviors,” the lawsuit claims, adding that “nothing could be further from the truth.”

Pete and Gerry’s President Jesse Laflamme blasted the suit, calling it a “publicity stunt” by PETA to advance its “very specific (vegan) agenda” and expressing anger that his company has been singled out as the poster boy for bad actors in the egg farming industry.

Laflamme called it “infuriating” that PETA “decided to ignore, effectively, the entire conventional, battery-caged egg industry and their egregious welfare practices and (instead) to target a company that doesn’t keep a single hen under those conditions and is working to improve animal welfare.”

PETA based its allegations on what was observed and video recorded during a public tour of a Pennsylvania farm that supplies eggs under the Nellie’s label. Nellie’s eggs, which are “free-range” although not organic, account for 37 percent of Pete & Gerry’s annual sales, according to the company.

“The harsh reality is that Nellie’s crams and stuffs hens ... into sheds up to 20,000 at a time,” the lawsuit says. “This overcrowding prevents them from extending their wings, foraging, or making their way to the outdoor space Nellie’s advertises so prominently. Such confinement leads to stress and trauma that in turn causes them further pain in the form of fighting, feather pecking, and self-mutilation.”

The 51-page lawsuit, which PETA described as “landmark,” seeks class-action status for Pete and Gerry’s customers and asks the court to order the company to halt certain practices, penalize the company and award compensatory damages to the plaintiffs. Plaintiffs contend that Pete and Gerry’s condones practices that don’t line up with the image the company presents to consumers — practices such as killing male newborn chicks, trimming hens’ beaks and selling hens to slaughterhouses after they are no longer productive.

Jared Goodman, deputy general counsel for animal law with the PETA Foundation, said in an interview that consumers are being “duped” by Pete and Gerry’s “false” marketing, which uses images and offers up a narrative at odds with the conditions in the henhouses of their contract farms.

“Each chicken had just over 1 square foot of floor space in the enclosure and were packed so closely together that visitors were stepping on them,” Goodman said.

He said there are indications that some hens are being pecked by more aggressive hens and not getting the access to roam outside as Pete & Gerry’s advertises.

“There were hens with missing feathers,” Goodman said.

The lawsuit characterizes the hatches in the henhouses that allow the hens access to the outdoors as “window-dressing.”

The hatches, the lawsuit alleges, “are closed all winter and during inclement weather,” and “even in pleasant weather” are not open until 1 in the afternoon.

The video of the Nellie’s supplier in Pennsylvania was recorded surreptitiously during a public tour of the henhouse. Laflamme said the recording device was hidden by someone taking the tour, even though the company has a policy of allowing people to openly photograph or record during the tour.

“It’s funny they would call it undercover footage because we encourage photography and video. There is nothing off limits on the farms. ... We don’t feel we have anything to hide.”

Goodman said the plaintiffs surfaced after PETA posted the grainy video of the Pennsylvania henhouse online and “put out a call for people who might have been misled by Nellie’s” to contact the organization.

“We didn’t seek them out,” he said. (PETA Foundation is not a party to the suit but supported the outside attorneys who drafted the complaint.)

Pete and Gerry’s, based in Monroe, N.H., was on the verge of bankruptcy in the late 1990s when it was a small family farm with a 20,000-hen flock supplying conventionally raised eggs to New England markets. The farm switched to organic and free-range eggs at a fortuitous time, just as the organic market took off at the turn of century. Today it is the top-selling organic egg brand in the country, and has its corporate offices at Centerra office park in Lebanon.

Under Laflamme, who took over the family business in 2000, Pete and Gerry’s has grown exponentially and now contracts with 120 farms across 12 states managing 3.6 million hens.

In 2018, the company wholesaled 51 million eggs. Revenues for the company this year are expected to top $200 million.

The Cornucopia Institute, a national food and farm policy watchdog group that promotes organic farming, has given Pete and Gerry’s a “3-egg” rating — for “very good” — on a scale of 1 to 5. The ratings are compiled from a score of 28 different farm practices, including space, flock size, lighting, manure handling and death loss rate.

“Generally Pete & Gerry’s has good reputation in the animal welfare community,” said Dena Jones, director of the farm animal program at the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, D.C.

Jones noted that Pete and Gerry’s supported strengthening the Obama-era standards for animal welfare on organic farms, which, notably, called for improved outdoor access for hens and minimum spacing requirements inside henhouses (the rules were reversed under the Trump administration).

That put Pete and Gerry’s “definitely in a minority in terms of individual organic egg producers,” according to Jones. “Most didn’t take a public position. The large ‘corporate’ organic egg companies opposed the rule.”

The Animal Welfare Institute, when it comes to eggs, endorses “pasture-raised” farming, the highest animal welfare standard above conventional, cage-free and free-range, which individual egg products also fall into.

The eggs Pete and Gerry’s sells under “pasture-raised” standard are its Carol’s Pasture Raised Eggs, which account for only 2 percent of the company’s annual sales.

Although some animal welfare and natural food advocates have long contended that the certified “humane” and “organic” designations are little more than marketing labels, Pete and Gerry’s has prided itself as being at the forefront of the organic and free-range egg revolution.

Laflamme, careful in responding to specific allegations in the lawsuit, said PETA “has taken a position to describe them in the most horrific possible way.”

He noted that “everything we do, we do under the program, inspection and auspices” of Humane Farm Animal Care, the independent nonproft organization whose “Certified Humane” designation for farm animals passes muster with many animal welfare groups.

Laflamme said he believes PETA has an ulterior motive in its lawsuit.

“We provide a viable alternative to consumers who want animal food products but want them from a humane and sustainable source,” he said. “When you step back and ask why did they leapfrog over 300 million hens in battery cages to come at us, it’s because in reality those 300 million hens further their agenda (of veganism) while we are the biggest threat to it.”

If all the different levels, standards and designations for hen welfare and eggs appear bewildering, the Animal Welfare Institute’s Jones said that’s the nature of the farming industry.

“Animal welfare is not a binary concept. It’s not black or white. It exists on a spectrum from low to high,” she said. “We would put Nellie’s Free Range Eggs toward the middle of this range, although we encourage people to shop at the high end, if they can.”

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.




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