Foster Farms Threatens Litigation Against East Bay Animal Advocates

By Suzanne La Barre (04-07-06)

A website dedicated to exposing the supposed mistreatment of Foster Farms’ chickens is under attack for allegedly infringing on intellectual property and defaming the company’s name.

A lawyer representing Foster Farms, a family-owned American poultry company since 1939, ordered the operators of fosterfacts.net to turn over the domain and "refrain from any libelous or slanderous activity toward Foster Farms" or risk legal retribution.

Fosterfacts.net details alleged health violations such as unsanitary living conditions and inadequate veterinary care uncovered in surreptitious investigations of Foster Farms facilities. The website is owned by the East Bay Animal Advocates (EBAA), an animal rights group based in Martinez.

In a letter dated Feb. 24, Foster Farms attorney Bobby Ghajar accuses the advocacy group of using the domain "fosterfacts.net" to promote its own views and agenda, and intentionally misusing the "Foster" trademark, which could cause visitors to mistake the EBAA website for a legitimate Foster Farms website.

He further argues that EBAA attempts to tarnish the company’s image by drawing blanket conclusions about labor and animal treatment practices based on questionable evidence, like an alleged interview with a Foster Farms employee who claims he’s forbidden to use the restroom at work.

"EBAA has made sweeping and misleading allegations about Foster Farms’ trade practices," Ghajar writes. "This is a deceptive and irresponsible attempt by EBAA to injure Foster Farms’ image and goodwill."

Vicki Steiner, a pro bono attorney for the animal rights group, said the First Amendment grants EBAA the right to post information about the company online.

"Obviously Foster Farms doesn’t want us putting this information out on the Internet, but the First Amendment protects our right to do that," said EBAA Director Christine Morrissey.

Steiner further dismisses allegations of defamation, arguing that photographic and videographic evidence of animal cruelty posted on fosterfacts.net speaks for itself. The website depicts photographs of dead and injured chickens, said to have been taken at a Merced County Foster Farms broiler operation, where poultry is raised.

In a March 10 response to Ghajar, Steiner declines a request to dismantle the website and challenges Foster Farms to allow an EBAA expert to conduct unannounced, videotaped inspections of the company’s facilities.

The EBAA, which formed in May 2003 and has developed a reputation for conducting "rescues," or liberating farm animals headed for the slaughterhouse, has never been sued, Morrissey said.

Fosterfacts.net was the group’s first foray into targeting a major corporation. Other large poultry operations exhibit similarly grim business practices, Morrissey said, but the EBAA hones in on Foster Farms because it is the largest poultry production in the Western United States.

A representative for Foster Farms did not return multiple calls for comment.

Foster Farms paints a far prettier picture of its poultry treatment on the official website fosterfarms.com. Chickens are "taken to a local ranch with optimal conditions to promote natural growth," the website says. "Each ranch has a ‘buffer zone’ of empty land all around. The climate is ideal. The chicks’ environment is kept comfortable and sanitary, and is monitored around the clock."

In 2001, the British medical services firm Huntingdon Life Sciences successfully quieted an animal rights group when it instructed a Pittsburgh-based web service provider to shut down two websites attacking the company.

At press time, Ghajar said the company had not filed a lawsuit. He declined to comment further, saying he was "not at liberty to talk about this case, because it’s ongoing."

Regardless of Foster Farms’ next move, EBAA will continue speaking out against animal rights’ infringements, Morrissey said. "The mission of our organization is to reveal cruelty of agriculture in California, and we’ll continue to do that."