Diestel Turkey Ranch, based in Sonora, is asking an Alameda County judge to throw out a lawsuit that claims the family-owned company misleads consumers about how its birds are raised.

The lawsuit filed last January by Direct Action Everywhere, a Bay Area animal rights group, and Barbara Elliott, a consumer of Diestel Turkey products, accuses the company of violating California law against false advertising for using labels such as “thoughtfully raised,” “range grown,” and “slow grown.”

In 2015, the animal rights group claimed to have documented Diestel turkeys being abused in undercover video filmed at the company’s facilities in Jamestown.

An amended complaint filed in Alameda County Superior Court on Nov. 13 alleges that Diestel Turkey samples tested by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service between 2015 and 2016 were positive for residues of antibiotics and other drugs, including ketamine.

The company filed a demurrer on Dec. 15 that argues the group and Elliott don’t have the legal right to sue over the way Diestel markets its turkeys because the USDA regulates meat and has pre-approved the use of the labels in question.

A hearing in Alameda County Superior Court is scheduled on Jan. 31 for Judge George C. Hernandez Jr. to consider whether the lawsuit can move forward.

Along with seeking possible monetary and punitive damages, the lawsuit aims to force Diestel to stop using labels such as “thoughtfully raised” in the marketing of its products and launch a corrective advertising campaign.

The Diestels have denied the accusations from the beginning and painted Direct Action Everywhere as an extreme group that doesn’t support meat production or consumption of any kind.

“We’re trying to do it the best way and right way, but this group has an issue with us growing turkeys to be consumed,” said Heidi Diestel in an interview Thursday (Dec. 21).

Direct Action Everywhere spokesman Matt Johnson acknowledged that the group is opposed to all animal agriculture, but accused the Diestels of attempting to distract from the allegations of consumer fraud.

Diestel defends practices

Diestel Turkey Ranch, established in 1949, is one of Tuolumne County’s largest commercial agricultural producers and supplies turkeys sold at Whole Foods Market throughout California, some of which fetch more than $100 per bird.

Blaxter Blackman LLP, the law firm representing Diestel, lists Whole Foods and other major Fortune 500 companies as clients on its website.

Some of the most expensive turkeys produced by Diestel are marketed as “pasture-raised” at its farm off Lyons Bald Mountain Road in Sonora. The company also touts that it has maintained a perfect 5+ rating from the Global Animal Partnership, a certifying body that conducts multiple audits throughout the year.

“For customers who want to know where their meat comes from and feel good about it, Diestel is their choice for that,” Heidi Diestel said.

The lawsuit claims the turkeys are only sent to the Sonora farm for slaughter and processing, but are raised under “deplorable conditions” at an outside facility in Jamestown with 26 barns each housing between 7,000 and 17,000 birds.

The lawsuit cited a 2013 report by the California Regional Water Quality Control Board that stated the company had eliminated all commercial use of the on-site pens at the Sonora ranch in 2012 after reaching a $22,000 settlement with the Tuolumne County District Attorney’s Office for allegedly spilling poultry manure from its processing plant into a creek that leads to Phoenix Lake Reservoir, which stores the City of Sonora’s public water supply.

Heidi Diestel has said the statements in the 2013 report were either inaccurate or taken out of context, and commercial turkeys are still raised at the Sonora ranch under a rotational grazing program.

“It’s just a way of farming that some folks consider to be really holistic,” she said Thursday. “That’s why those turkeys are so special.”

The lawsuit cited statements by Kent Larson, who lives within eyesight of the Diestel facilities off La Grange Road in Jamestown, who said during a deposition that he had only seen turkeys outside of the barns once in the 20 years he’s lived there.

In 2011, Larson filed a complaint to the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office about an unpermitted gun range and firearms training school operating on Diestel land directly across La Grange Road from his home.

County officials required the operators of the range and school to seek a conditional use permit for continued use of the land, but they later withdrew their application under the threat of a lawsuit from neighboring property owners.

Larson declined to comment about the false-advertising lawsuit against Diestel after being advised by his attorneys to not speak publicly about the matter.

Heidi Diestel also dismissed the allegations that testing had found traces of antibiotics, hormones and other drugs in Diestel turkeys. The lawsuit cited information on the company’s website that stated animals are “never given hormones, antibiotics, or growth stimulants,” as well as video that stated the same.

“I can’t speak to where they’re getting their information, but everything that’s tested by USDA is in accordance with their standards,” Heidi Diestel said. “The products are tested by the USDA in accordance with the FSIS National Residue Program to confirm the absence of antibiotics or any other prohibited substances, which thereby validate our farming practices.”

Direct Action
Everywhere responds

The lawsuit claims that Diestel turkeys inspected by the USDA’s program on four dates between 2015 and 2016 reported positive for residue of human-use antibiotics amikacin, spectinomycin, and chloramphenicol, the latter of which it states is prohibited for use in animals intended for food.

According to the lawsuit, the testing also found traces of: hygromycin, a veterinary antibiotic; ipronidazole, a veterinary drug; melengesterol acetate, a synthetic hormone; sulfanitran, an antibacterial feed additive; and ketamine, an animal tranquilizer sometimes used by humans as a party drug that’s known for inducing dissociative and hallucinogenic effects in the user.

Johnson said the argument that the testing was compliant with USDA standards sounded to him like an attempt at “moving the goalposts.”

“Diestel’s advertisements say they use no chemicals, no hormones, and no drugs, so it’s a different standard,” Johnson said in an interview Thursday (Dec. 21). “If Diestel was saying their turkeys are USDA compliant, that would be a totally different ball game.”

Johnson said he was not an expert on what amounts of certain drugs and chemicals are safe for human consumption, but people can come to their own conclusions about what the USDA says is safe.

The lawsuit cited several consumer studies conducted over the past 10 years by organizations like the Animal Welfare Institute that found a majority people who were surveyed would be willing to pay a higher price for animal products that were humanely produced.

A 2015 survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center cited in the lawsuit also found that 82 percent of consumers said it was important to reduce the use of antibiotics in food production.

Johnson affirmed that his group’s overarching mission of “total animal liberation,” which is to ultimately see the elimination of animal agriculture as a whole. He said that shining a light on producers who claim higher ethical standards than typical agro-industrial methods feeds into that goal.

“If this is what the best of the best represents, what does the rest of it look like? Ultimately, that’s a broader conversation,” he said. “That leads us to saying this whole notion of commodifying animals is something we need to challenge at the root.”

Activists’ tactics

Direct Action Everywhere’s handbook states that the group favors focusing on activism over converting people to veganism and spreads its message using nonviolent methods such as mass protest, though some of their tactics have been described as disruptive.

According to an article by The Washington Post, the group consistently protested a butcher shop in Berkeley until it agreed to hang a sign that stated killing animals “is violent and unjust, no matter how it’s done.”

Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office incident logs stated that dispatchers received a report at 12:10 p.m. on Nov. 17 about “several people protesting the unfair treatment of animals” on Diestel Turkey Ranch property in Jamestown.

The log note further stated that the person who reported the incident called back five minutes later to cancel a response because the people had left.

Johnson confirmed his group visited the company’s Sonora ranch and Jamestown facilities that day, but denied that they were there to protest. He said they visited the sites to ask questions, but were told to leave by employees and later followed by local law enforcement.

In a 50-minute video posted Nov. 17 on the group’s Facebook page, Johnson describes the encounter while traveling in a vehicle from Sonora to the Jamestown farm.

Johnson claims in the video that they were pulled over after the visit to the Sonora farm by two sheriff’s officers and one person in plainclothes who “basically indicated he was an agent representing Diestel.”

The video cuts out before they reach the Jamestown location.

“It just shows the close ties we see between law enforcement and industry,” Johnson said in an interview last week. “Their job is not to be representatives of the industry.”

Andrea Benson, spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Office, stated in an email that Sheriff’s deputies were called to the ranch on Lyons Bald Mountain Road in November on a day the company had closed the ranch to the public.

According to Benson, the company had a private security firm working for them during the Thanksgiving season at all of their farms in the county.

Benson stated deputies spoke to several people who said they were from Direct Action Everywhere, and both sides were cordial and professional to each other.

“Our deputies explained to them the laws on trespassing and the laws on peaceful protests,” Benson stated. “They explained to them they were welcome to be there and protest as long as they did not break any laws.”

Benson stated to the agency’s knowledge, deputies didn’t speak to anyone from the group at any other Diestel site.

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