A Bay Area animal-rights group has filed a lawsuit against one of Tuolumne County’s leading commercial agricultural producers claiming it falsely advertises how its turkeys are raised.
Direct Action Everywhere, or DxE, filed a 24-page civil complaint in Alameda County Superior Court last month alleging that Diestel Turkey Ranch, which operates farms in Sonora and Jamestown, violated state law against false advertising by marketing products as “free range” or “thoughtfully raised,” despite actually raising them in typical agro-industrial conditions.
“Diestel and Whole Foods are distorting consumer perceptions,” said Kim Richman, the San Francisco-based attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of DxE, in a press release. “Consumers and animals both pay the price for that fraud.”
Heidi Diestel said in a telephone interview Wednesday that the company maintained a perfect rating from the Global Animal Partnership in an audit conducted after the allegations by DxE came to light in November 2015.
“They came out and felt we were doing a great job and our farms are in great shape,” Diestel said.
In November 2015, DxE released a video that they said was filmed at the Diestel’s Jamestown farm as part of a wider undercover investigation depicting hundreds of turkeys corralled in a dark barn, some with open wounds and missing feathers.
The group claimed that DxE investigators pretending to be consumers uncovered “filthy” and “crowded” conditions during multiple visits to the farm over a period of nine months in 2015.
Diestel supplies turkey products to stores throughout California, including Whole Foods Market, Farmer Joe’s Marketplace, and Erewhon Natural Foods.
In a November 2015 interview with The Union Democrat, Heidi Diestel disputed DxE’s allegations and said her family’s company still grows a few thousand pasture-raised turkeys specifically for the Thanksgiving holiday each year.
Following the release of the DxE investigation, Diestel said the company received calls from customers to discuss the allegations and encouraged them to visit the ranch.
“We are completely transparent with our customers,” Diestel said. “We do everything that we say we do.”
Diestel said she believes the activist group’s ultimate goal is to put an end to the animal-agriculture industry all together.
The lawsuit pointed to information on the company’s website that said Diestel turkeys were “grown with plenty of fresh air and space to roam, whether indoors or outdoors,” as well as marketing materials that heavily emphasize the company’s “idyllic Sonora Ranch.”
In arguing that most Diestel turkeys are raised off-site in Jamestown and brought to the Sonora ranch only for slaughter, the lawsuit cited a report by the California Water Quality Control Board stemming from previous accusations against the company in 2010.
Water-quality inspectors in December 2010 said they observed poultry manure being released from the company’s processing plant off Lyons Bald Mountain Road into a creek that flows into Phoenix Lake Reservoir, which holds the City of Sonora’s main water supply.
The company ultimately reached a settlement with the Tuolumne County District Attorney’s Office in 2012 in which it agreed to pay $22,000, reduce the number of turkeys raised at the Sonora farm between 60 and 75 percent and institute a pasture-based rotational grazing program.
On its website, DxE describes itself as an activist organization against “factory farming, animal abuse and animal cruelty.” There is a section about the animal liberation movement that concludes with the call-to-action: “Until every animal is set free.”
“It’s important to understand the mission of DxE, which is to stop animal agriculture and meat consumption,” Diestel said. “I don’t think the DxE group will ever see eye-to-eye with what we do.”
The Diestel family has been farming in the Sonora area since the early 1900s. Jack Diestel, who recently turned 91, started the turkey ranch on Lyons Bald Mountain Road in 1949.
Heidi Diestel said the company now typically employs about 100 to 200 people throughout year depending on the season.
Diestel said they plan to defend their practices and have a team of people helping them navigate through the situation.
The lawsuit seeks an accounting of all profits derived from what DxE claims was false advertising, an injunction ordering the company to stop the alleged unlawful practices and engage in a corrective advertising campaign, and pay all of DxE’s attorney fees and litigation costs.
“We are a small business, so it’s not like we have much experience with these types of lawsuits,” Diestel said. “We just want to assure that people understand what we’re doing is transparent.”