updated 5/11/2004 8:06:37 AM ET 2004-05-11T12:06:37

The egg industry should stop advertising its products as humane as long as it continues such practices as clipping hens’ beaks and depriving birds of food and water, according to a ruling issued Monday by the Better Business Bureau.

The ruling comes from the bureau’s New York-based National Advertising Review Board, its highest authority on advertising issues. The board recommended that the United Egg Producers either discontinue labeling eggs as “animal care certified,” or significantly alter it to stop misleading consumers.

“It is unimaginable that consumers would consider treatment they find ’unacceptable’ to be humane treatment,” the ruling stated.

The ruling upheld a November finding by a lower panel of the Better Business Bureau. Compliance with the recommendations are voluntary, but groups that refuse to do so are referred to federal agencies like the Federal Trade Commission or the Food and Drug Administration for further investigation.

“It happens so infrequently that if it does go to the FDA or the FTC, they will scrutinize the case because it raises their red flags,” said Bruce Hopewell, director of the National Advertising Review Board.

Several telephone messages left with officials of the Atlanta-based United Egg Producers, the U.S. egg industry’s trade association, were not returned.

The group has said the logo, which adorns egg cartons in grocery stores, is based on scientific standards developed by a group of independent experts.

Its official response to the ruling stated that the group is prepared “to increase the extent to which the substantive significance of the guidelines is communicated to consumers.”

While the BBB found that the egg industry’s standards have improved treatment of hens, it’s not to a level that most consumers would find humane.

Among the practices cited were forced molting, which is intentionally withholding food and water to make birds lose weight; partial beak clipping, without anesthesia, to prevent birds from pecking each other; and dense crowding of hens in cages that don’t allow them to flap their wings or turn around.

The ruling stems from a complaint by Compassion Over Killing, a small, Washington, D.C.-based animal rights group that monitors treatment of animals in by agricultural producers.

“I think that it’s pretty clear that most consumers don’t consider a cage that doesn’t let a chicken flap its wings as so-called ’animal care certified,”’ said Paul Shapiro, the organization’s campaigns director.

Shapiro said he hoped the ruling would lead the egg industry to follow the lead of European countries like Switzerland and Germany that have or soon will ban chicken cages altogether in their egg industries.

He said he hoped the ruling would bolster his group’s case in complaints filed with the FTC and the FDA.

Hopewell said the BBB will follow up in several months to see if United Egg Producers has discontinued the logo or made significant changes to its advertising. If it doesn’t, he said, the bureau will refer the case to the FTC or the FDA, which could order the egg industry to stop the advertising and levy fines.

Hopewell said the review board’s rulings have a compliance rate of about 95 percent, and that it’s considered a black mark against those who refuse. The board is made up of professionals from the advertising industry itself.

Iowa ranks first among the U.S. states in egg production. In 2001, the state produced 7.55 billion eggs from 37.8 million chickens for cash receipts of $241 million.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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