A Bay Area animal-rights group that’s suing Diestel Turkey Ranch can’t challenge the Sonora-based farm’s use of certain claims on product labels because they were pre-approved by the U.S. Department of Food and Agriculture, according to a ruling earlier this month by Alameda County Superior Court Ioana Petrou.

Petrou’s final ruling issued Feb. 5 on a demurrer filed by Diestel Turkey Ranch is essentially a complete reversal from her tentative ruling issued less than a week earlier that stated the false-advertising lawsuit could move forward because Federal Poultry Products Inspection Act didn’t preempt state consumer-protection laws.

“Once the USDA has reviewed and approved product labels, any claim that labels as approved are false or misleading is preempted by the PPIA,” Petrou wrote in her final ruling, citing a 2017 lawsuit against Campbell Soup Co.

Direct Action Everywhere, also known as DxE, filed the lawsuit against Diestel Turkey Ranch in January 2017 after releasing a report just before Thanksgiving in 2015 that chronicled a yearlong investigation of the family-owned company’s farming practices.

The report alleged that Diestel turkeys bearing labels such as “range grown” and “thoughtfully raised” that are sold at Whole Foods and other high-end grocery stores in California are actually raised in dark, cramped pens in Jamestown.

Barbara Elliott, a Bay Area resident who said she purchased Diestel turkey products, joined DxE’s lawsuit against the company on claims of false advertising and unfair business practices.

A previous judge who presided over the lawsuit sustained a demurrer to DxE’s original complaint in July, which forced the group’s lawyers to file an amended complaint about a month later.

“I think it’s telling that there have been two independent judges who have seen two versions of these complaints and both have agreed that these are unfit to be seen in court,” said Heidi Diestel, spokeswoman for the company. “Specifically, this last judge acknowledged the label claims are approved by the USDA, which I think helps ensure and validate our farming practices.”

The group plans to continue pressing forward with the lawsuit over the company’s claims on its website and other marketing materials that are not approved by the USDA, though Elliott will no longer be a plaintiff because of Petrou’s ruling.

Diestel said the company plans to “vigorously defend ourselves and our farming practices.”

“These are baseless claims,” she said. “We’re going to continue to tell our story and tell our customers where their food is coming from.”

The company is considered one of Tuolumne County’s largest agricultural producers and employs between 100 and 200 people during peak season. It has also supported philanthropic work around the community, such as the donation of more than 1,000 turkeys to local food banks at Thanksgiving last year.

Matt Johnson, spokesman for DxE, said he viewed the judge’s ruling as both good and bad for the group’s lawsuit moving forward.

Johnson said it’s good for the group because it allows DxE to move forward as a plaintiff on false advertising claims related to materials not approved by the USDA, whereas the tentative ruling would have dropped the group from those claims.

The inability to challenge Diestel’s labels means that even if the lawsuit on the other claims were to prevail, the company could still use the same phrases it currently uses to advertise its turkeys sold in stores.

“It’s not a total victory that they are going to keep using these labels, but it highlights the bigger issue that we’re trying to draw attention to,” Johnson said.

That issue relates to what Johnson described as the revolving door between industry interests and government. For example, he noted that President Donald Trump’s Agriculture Secretary, Sonny Perdue, was involved with the industry because he ran a company that traded agricultural commodities internationally.

“We’re putting the fox in charge of the henhouse here and it’s consumers who are lied to and animals being tortured by the billions that pay the price, while individuals like Sonny Perdue laugh all the way to the bank,” Johnson said.

The group supports a movement called “total animal liberation” that seeks to put an end to all animal agriculture.

Johnson has said the group targeted Diestel in an attempt to show how even agriculture businesses that claim to adhere to the higher standards than typical agro-industrial operations engage in farming practices that people may consider to be brutal.

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.