Diestel stands ground against activists and wins

California turkey producer Diestel Family Ranch recently defeated Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) in a court battle, after the animal rights group accused Diestel of falsely advertising its animal welfare initiatives.

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Fourth-generation turkey farmer Heidi Diestel says when animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere filed a lawsuit claiming Diestel Family Ranch made false claims about its animal welfare practices, it was important to prove in court the claims against them were false. (Diestel Family Ranch)
Fourth-generation turkey farmer Heidi Diestel says when animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere filed a lawsuit claiming Diestel Family Ranch made false claims about its animal welfare practices, it was important to prove in court the claims against them were false. (Diestel Family Ranch)

California turkey producer Diestel Family Ranch recently defeated Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) in a court battle, after the animal rights group accused Diestel of falsely advertising its animal welfare initiatives.

Diestel Family Ranch wasn’t the first poultry company to be targeted by baseless legal claims made by anti-agriculture groups, and it will not be the last. But rather than to just reach a settlement so Diestel Family Ranch could get back to business without the distraction of a lawsuit, the family-owned company chose to fight DxE in court and protect its earned reputation as a welfare-minded turkey producer.

Diestel’s history with DxE

Heidi Diestel, a fourth-generation family farmer and vice president of marketing, said the history between the two parties goes back more than five years.

“The fall of 2015 was when it started,” she said. “Unbeknownst to us, we were welcomed with a news crew showing up on our property, on our ranch, inquiring about (DxE’s) published story that they created called the Deadly Feast.”

“They claimed that they conducted an investigation over a period of time, breaking into our property and taking the turkeys. They kind of concocted this story, and wrote a report – if you will – with a video that coincided with it to say that the animal husbandry practices with Diestel employees were not as they were supposed to be.”

About two years later, DxE filed a suit. While DxE made some amendments to its initial suit and issued a press release about new allegations against Diestel Family Ranch, by the time the case went to trial in 2019, “basically what it came down to was (claims of) false advertising and unfair business practices.”

Diestel’s defense

Diestel said that when she was growing up around the family turkey business, she didn’t ever think she would be spending time and resources on legal action. But for the Diestel family, not defending their business was not an option.

Diestel Family Ranch represents a small portion of U.S. turkey production. Diestel estimates that her family’s business makes up “a half of a half a percent of the country’s turkey production.” The company has no ambitions to become a huge company, but instead focuses on raising turkeys according to high standards and producing a quality product. If the Diestel’s were to stay silent, others would define them in the public eye.

“There were opportunities to settle or move in different directions, or try to negotiate with the parties at hand, but we as a family and as a team feel very strongly about our practices, and we’ve been doing it for over 70 years. We’re family owned and operated. We’ve grown a lot as a company and really feel we do turkey the right way and the best way. We wanted to just have our voices heard in this and not allow these really extreme groups to define our company, our standards, and everything we work hard for in our industry. We continued to defend ourselves and be proactive in the suits, and really show up and be present.”

Included in Diestel’s testimony was paperwork from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and various audits to certify the company’s animal welfare and food safety initiatives.

“We have documentation and processes across our practices that validate how we do things and why we do things. All of our products, via the USDA and the governing bodies of said labels, had documentation associated to the claims on our packaging,” she said. “We don’t just get to make claims that aren’t validated.”

The strategy paid off. In late 2020, the Supreme Court of California in Alameda County ruled in favor of Diestel Family Ranch.

The judge stated: “The overwhelming weight of the evidence was to the opposite (of DxE’s claims). Diestel’s turkeys are provided a level of care and attention the vast majority of turkey producers never attain. It was undisputed that (Diestel) prepares a higher quality low fat feed for its birds. There was not one scintilla of evidence that the birds were deprived of adequate food or water. Quite to the contrary, the evidence established (Diestel) provides the birds with ample food and probiotic water to help fatten them up for market. The unique construction of all of (Diestel’s) barns (use) open sides for fresh air and sunlight, curtains for shade, and the GAP 3 barns which offer outdoor access more than satisfy (California’s) requirement for shelter.”

In addition to prevailing in the suit filed by DxE, Diestel Family Ranch also won a counter-suit against the activist organization for repeated trespassing and theft of its turkeys.

It was important to file a counter-suit, not only to protect its assets from theft and vandalism, but also from a biosecurity standpoint, Diestel said. Some of the trespassing incidents occurred during the 2015-16 avian influenza outbreak, which incidentally struck another California turkey producer’s operations.

Diestel Turkeys Barn

Diestel Family Ranch turkeys, shown in one of their barns, are routinely audited to show they follow the animal welfare certification protocols. | Diestel Family Ranch

New lawsuits

While Diestel’s legal wrangling with DxE is over, other suits have been filed on behalf of similar groups. The same attorney that represented DxE, Gretchen Elsner, has “found new representatives to file almost identical lawsuits against Diestel under nearly precisely the same allegations.”

“This is something that was obviously quite disappointing to learn, but the agenda of these folks and their associated bodies of like-minded individuals doesn’t support farm animal ag in any capacity. This is what they’re going to do. Unfortunately, it’s not a situation of having a reasonable, productive discussion over whatever their concerns are. That’s not their goal.”

Advice for other poultry producers

Other poultry producers -- including Tyson Foods, Sanderson Farms and Cargill Protein – have also faced lawsuits alleging false advertising.

And Diestel says if a poultry company hasn’t already been a victim of similar allegations, it is just a matter of time.

“If it’s not Direct Action Everywhere, it’s going to be another group,” she said. “It’s not going to be cheap. It’s going to be an investment with attorneys, time, effort and energy.”

She also advises being fully transparent about all aspects of farming and food manufacturing operations, so there is already a degree of public knowledge about them.

“Be more proactive in the process. Be transparent with your practices. Have open Q & A sessions. Talk to your customers or consumers. Be accessible, so if and when this happens, your messaging and communication are clearly aligned, you are telling your story and there is nothing to worry about,” she said. “Connecting people with their food is the best thing the industry can do.”

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