Food with “no sketchy backstory”: That’s what the Diestel Family Ranch website promises consumers will get if they purchase the company’s poultry products.
But two class-action lawsuits — one filed in New Mexico by a Santa Fe woman and another filed in California — claim the opposite is true.
Cynthia Wetzel of Santa Fe is the plaintiff in the New Mexico complaint, which accuses the company of false advertising and violating the state’s Unfair Trade Practices Act. It also seeks to represent other New Mexicans who purchased Diestel products since November 2016.
According to the lawsuit, Wetzel bought a turkey from Whole Foods Market in Santa Fe for her family’s Thanksgiving meal in 2018 because she believed meat sold at Whole Foods came from animals that were treated more humanely than those whose meat was sold at other stores.
The turkey Wetzel purchased in 2018, according to the lawsuit, was about twice the cost of other turkeys she could have purchased, but she paid extra to purchase a bird that had a higher animal welfare rating.
Wetzel’s attorney declined to make her available for an interview Monday.
One of the complaints disputes California-based Diestel Family Ranch’s advertised claims that its turkeys are “thoughtfully raised” — roaming outdoors in the fresh air and even receiving individual care. Instead, the lawsuit claims, birds actually live in “large overcrowded metal sheds … and are often mired in manure and slaughterhouse waste.”
Whole Foods — whose Santa Fe store had a 17-pound “Range Grown Premium Pasture Raised” Diestel turkey for sale at $104.17 Monday — declined to comment on the lawsuit.
According to the lawsuit, Diestel’s slick brochures, featuring images of turkeys grazing freely on green pastures, did not accurately represent conditions revealed by an undercover investigation conducted in 2015 by the animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere. The group reportedly found turkeys in the company’s farms “languishing or dead,” and “covered in feces,” among other problems.
Farmer Heidi Diestel — who said her grandfather started the Diestel company in 1949 — said the lawsuits’ claims are based on unsupported evidence and misrepresent the company’s practices.
“I don’t feel like this filing has any merit at all,” said Diestel in a phone interview Monday. “It does not represent what we are doing on our farms.”
Diestel acknowledged only a fraction of the animals the company raises for food come from the Diestel Family Ranch in Sonora, Calif., but said, “We have a lot of different produce lines … some are raised in a more barn-centric environment and some in a more pasture-centered environment.”
She said all of the products are labeled to accurately reflect the conditions under which they are farmed.
She said the company’s animal welfare practices are audited by a nonprofit as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She added the family feels Direct Action Everywhere singled the company out for its lawsuit because the group fundamentally does not believe in eating animals and likely saw the company as an easier target than larger companies, which likely have more money to fight such complaints.
“Unfortunately, these folks have taken it upon themselves to publish information that is really misleading,” Diestel said. “It’s really unfortunate and very disappointing.”
Direct Action Everywhere — a global grassroots network of animal rights activists, according to its website — filed a similar lawsuit against Diestel in 2017. Elsner Law and Policy, the Santa Fe firm representing Wetzel, represented the nonprofit in that case, which attorney Gretchen Elsner said is still pending.
Wetzel’s lawsuit seeks to represent what it estimates is a class of “thousands” of New Mexicans who have paid premium prices for their Thanksgiving birds since 2016. The complaint seeks damages of $100 per purchase, estimating the lawsuit to be worth more than $5 million dollars in damages.
The complaint also asks the court to order the company to stop what it alleges is false advertising.