SAN JOSE (CBS SF) — An animal protection organization sued Whole Foods Market Inc. in federal court in San Jose Monday, accusing the natural foods grocery chain of deceiving customers in its claims of humane treatment of animals and poultry raised for meat.

The lawsuit by People for Ethical Treatment of Animals challenges a 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating System used by Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods
in selling beef, pork, chicken and turkey.

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Step 1, the lowest step, is described by the grocery chain as “no crates, no cages, no crowding” and Step 5, the top step, has the animal’s wellbeing as the highest priority.

The lawsuit alleges that Whole Foods’ use of the rating system is misleading because some of the standards are not much different from regular industry standards and the standards are not enforced in a meaningful way, while customers are charged more for the meat.

The lawsuit also alleges violations of three California consumer protection laws: the Unfair Business Practices Act, the Consumer Legal Remedies Act and the False Advertising Law.

PETA, which based in Norfolk, Va., was joined in the lawsuit by Leah Williams of Pebble Beach, who says in the filing that she bought meat at a Whole Foods Market in Monterey for at least six years and was influenced by the claims of superior animal welfare when she paid premium prices for the meat.

The lawsuit seeks to be certified as a class action on behalf of an estimated thousands of customers who bought meat or poultry from Whole Foods stores in California in the past four years.

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It asks for an injunction blocking the allegedly deceptive practices and restitution to the class members of money paid to Whole Foods as a result of the alleged practices.

Beth Krauss, the Northern California spokesperson for Whole Foods, said company officials are aware of the lawsuit but have not yet been served.

“It is important to remember that PETA’s mission is a total end to animal agriculture and their claims against our business are generated with that specific goal in mind,” Krauss said in a statement.

PETA Foundation Director of Animal Law Jared Goodman said, “‘Humane meat’ is a myth that dupes well-intentioned shoppers into paying higher prices for the very products of crowding, lingering death, and suffering that they were trying to avoid.

“The only way to avoid the pervasive cruelty involved in modern meat production is to go vegan, but PETA’s lawsuit seeks an end to Whole Foods’ lies,” Goodman said in a statement.

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