As Congress debates a bill this week to set up a commission to study how schools choose meat and poultry products — and whether students should be offered a trans-fat-free breakfast — activists have been sharpening their attacks on the fast-food industry for adding salt, antibiotics and steroids to its products.
Over the last few decades, some industry players have responded to such criticism with an initiative of their own: They are holding factory farms at arm’s length, making their food labelling look less like advertisement and more like a concern about consumer health and safety. Just how far they go can be debated, but one thing is clear: They are dropping the name of “poultry” from their labels.
Plenty of companies who have shown that they are serious about food safety and animal welfare — such as the Fair Food Program or the Oxfam-backed Can Community Programme — are already doing so. But there is no such thing as a silver bullet when it comes to improving labelling, as Congress is about to learn.
This is where class actions come in. For years, consumers have taken their claims to courts, often on more dubious grounds. Since 2005, the consumer class action — which can bring together a disparate number of parties who all have a stake in a dispute — has been able to work in the same way in food as it does in other fields. This may be a clumsy step for an industry to take, and the result may not be palatable to some purveyors of chicken food (think: Louisville Kentucky). But, in my view, it is an important step that has been forgotten in the rush to limit regulation and especially, in the climate of detente over foodborne illness following 2010’s peanut butter scandal.
So here are a few tips for those who wish to go to court over the ethics of your next chicken dinner: