Animal rights groups lose a round in egg label case

Appeals court says federal agencies have the authority to handle the issue on a case-by-case basis

Are those eggs you're scrambling really from "free-range" chickens? What is a free-range chicken anyway? A federal appeals court has said it's not a question that requires a federal rule-making process. 

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday turned aside an appeal from the Animal Legal Defense Fund and Compassion Over Killing, which have been trying to get federal agencies to impose strict rules on how eggs should be labeled.

The groups say the lack of clear regulations is basically letting egg ranchers mislead consumers about the lifestyles of their hens. The groups have been trying since 2013 to get the feds to require that eggs cartons to be labeled as “free-range,” “cage-free,” or “eggs from caged hens.”

Various federal agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Tade Commission and the Agriculture Department, all have some jurisdiction in the matter but have traditionally enforced labeling on a case-by-case basis.

Sylvan scenes

The groups argued that egg carton labels feature images or phrases that suggest hens are raised outdoors with space to move freely when the hens are in fact raised in restrictive cages.

According to the groups, approximately 95 percent of hens spend their lives in cages with four or five other birds. The tight space prevents the hens from stretching their wings and raising their heads, and osteoporosis from lack of movement is common.

But the appeals court said the agencies had the authority to decide how to handle egg labeling.

“The decision to take enforcement action against misbranded eggs on a case-by-case basis, as opposed to promulgating regulations that would apply to all egg producers, is left to the broad discretion of the FDA,” wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Mary Murguia in the court’s 14-page opinion.

The animal rights groups said they would not give up.

“We are undeterred,” Animal Legal Defense Fund attorney Kelsey Eberly said. “We’re not going to let this loss hold us back.” She said the groups would continue to file lawsuits demanding action by the federal agencies.

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