Court Rejects Bid to Force Issuance of Federal Labeling Regulations on Egg Production Methods

January 9, 2015

By Ricardo Carvajal

A California federal district court granted summary judgment in favor of the government in a lawsuit brought by animal rights organizations that focused on treatment of egg-laying hens.  Plaintiffs initially filed petitions with several federal agencies asking them to issue regulations that would have required egg producers to identify their egg production methods (e.g., cage-free vs. battery cage) on the label of their eggs.  When the petitions were denied, plaintiffs filed suit, alleging that the denials were arbitrary and capricious in violation of the APA.

As expected given their varying statutory authorities, each of the agencies in question cited somewhat different grounds for denying the petitions.  In part, FDA claimed that it lacked authority “to regulate egg labeling based only upon consumer interest in animal welfare (as opposed to reasons relating to safety or nutrition).”  FTC “found that the plaintiffs' petition provided insufficient evidence by which [FTC] could conclude that consumers are deceived by egg producers' current labeling practices.”  USDA/AMS concluded that it could not require the labeling desired by plaintiffs under its voluntary marketing programs, and USDA/FSIS concluded that its labeling authority over shell eggs was too limited to accommodate the plaintiffs’ request. 

The court held that none of the agency responses were arbitrary or capricious.  A common thread running through the court’s analysis of FDA and FTC’s responses was the high level of deference accorded to an agency’s refusal to promulgate a rule, particularly where rulemaking is left to agency discretion (as opposed to being mandated by Congress).