An Alameda County Superior Court judge’s tentative ruling would allow a lawsuit filed by a consumer and Bay Area animal-rights activists against Diestel Turkey Ranch, one of Tuolumne County’s largest agricultural producers, to move forward on most fronts.

Judge Ioana Petrou issued the tentative ruling Tuesday on a demurrer filed by the family-owned farm based in Sonora that seeks to dismiss the claims made in the civil complaint by Direct Action Everywhere, also known as DxE.

Petrou overruled the demurrer on all five causes of action except for part of one that claims DxE lost money or property due to alleged false advertising by the poultry farm, though she gave the group an additional 10 days to amend the complaint.

If the ruling becomes final, that means the lawsuit would be able to move forward on allegations that Diestel Turkey Ranch violated California law by using labels on its products that advertises its birds as “slow grown” and “range grown.”

“I thought the tentative ruling was pretty positive for those five claims,” said Gretchen Elsner, an attorney based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, who is representing DxE.

Elsner and Brian Blackman, the San Francisco attorney representing Diestel Turkey Ranch, gave oral arguments Wednesday in Alameda Superior Court in support of their respective sides.

Petrou must now issue a final ruling on Diestel Turkey Ranch’s demurrer, which Elsner expected would happen sometime in the next week.

Emails and phone messages for Blackman went unreturned Wednesday, as did a phone message for the Diestel family’s spokeswoman, Heidi Diestel.

The civil complaint alleges five causes of action against Diestel Turkey Ranch for negligent misrepresentation, breach of express warranty, violation of the Consumer Legal Remedies Act, violation of California’s false advertising law, and violation of the state’s unfair competition and business practices law.

In December, the company filed the demurrer that argued DxE and consumer Barbara Elliott didn’t have the legal right to sue over the way Diestel Turkey Ranch markets its products because the U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates meat and has pre-approved the use of the labels in question.

Petrou’s tentative ruling stated that the federal Poultry Products Inspection Act only takes precedence over state claims seeking to impose additional requirements or ones different to those required by the act, but it doesn’t take precedence over claims that products are misbranded.

“It is an evidentiary question, not appropriate for resolution by Demurrer, whether Defendants' turkeys were in fact ‘range grown’ or ‘slow grown,’ “ the ruling stated. “The turkeys' labels are not irrebuttable proof that the contents of the packaging necessarily complied with the information on the labels.”

In November 2015, the animal-rights group released the findings of a monthslong undercover investigation it had allegedly conducted into Diestel Turkey Ranch’s farming practices that included a video purportedly depicting hundreds of emaciated turkeys crammed into one of the dimly lit pens at the company’s Jamestown farm.

The group alleged that the company was selling the turkeys at stores like Whole Foods, some of which fetched up to $100 per bird, bearing labels such as “range grown,” “slow grown,” and “thoughtfully raised.”

Elliott, who has purchased Diestel turkey products, and the group filed the lawsuit against the company in January 2017.

Heidi Diestel has denied all allegations in past interviews and says that the 69-year-old company consistently receives a perfect rating from independent inspectors who conduct regular audits at the farm.

Diestel has also pointed to DxE’s goal of “total animal liberation” when arguing that the group would never support their farming practices.

The group’s spokesman, Matt Johnson, has acknowledged their ultimate goal is to end all animal agriculture and that they have targeted Diestel Turkey Ranch to shine light on producers who claim higher ethical standards than typical agro-industrial methods.

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

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