By P.J. Huffstutter
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Kroger Co, the biggest U.S. supermarket operator, faces a lawsuit claiming it deceived consumers by marketing a store brand as humanely raised chicken products when the animals were raised under standard commercial farming.
The complaint, filed late on Tuesday in Superior Court of California in Los Angeles County, is seeking class-action status against Kroger for allegedly misleading California consumers with claims about the grocer's "Simple Truth" premium-priced store brand of chicken.
Kroger spokesman Keith Dailey told Reuters on Wednesday that the company has not had an opportunity to review the lawsuit. However, Dailey said: "What we have on our Simple Truth chicken label is information for our customers that we believe is accurate, and we intend to vigorously defend our label."
The "Simple Truth" chicken products were packaged with labeling that stated the animals were raised "in a humane environment" and "cage free," according to the lawsuit.
However, standard industry practice for broiler chickens is to house them inside large buildings, not cages, according to industry experts.
The "Simple Truth" chicken products are produced by Perdue Farms, which has followed industry practices such as electrically stunning birds prior to slaughter, according to the lawsuit.
The case highlights the growing tension between food retailers and U.S. consumers, who have become more vocal over how food is produced and marketed.
"Looking to profit from growing consumer awareness of, and concern with, the treatment of farm animals raised for meat production, Kroger engaged in a deceptive and misleading marketing scheme to promote its 'Simple Truth' store brand chicken as having been sourced from chickens raised 'cage free in a humane environment'," according to the complaint.
"In fact, Simple Truth chickens are treated no differently than other mass-produced chickens on the market."
Consumer demand over food production practices has led to numerous product changes in recent months by major food companies. Subway plans to eliminate azodicarbonamide from its dough and Kraft Foods Group Inc has said it will remove the preservative sorbic acid from some individually wrapped cheese slices.
Chick-fil-A announced on Tuesday that, within five years, it would stop selling poultry products from chicken raised with antibiotics.
The case is Anna Ortega v. The Kroger Co, Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles, No. BC536034.
(Reporting By P.J. Huffstutter; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Andre Grenon)