Sustainability lawsuit against Cooke dismissed, animal welfare group exploring legal options
A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit claiming Cooke Aquaculture and True North made false sustainable marketing claims, but the animal rights group that brought the complaint may be planning further legal action.
In late April, District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Heidi M. Pasichow dismissed Animal Outlook’s complaint against the St. John, New Brunswick, Canada-based seafood supplier due to lack of “personal jurisdiction” in Washington, D.C., U.S.A.
In the complaint filed in January 2020, Animal Outlook accused Cooke Aquaculture, its True North Seafood brand, and Wanchese Fish Company of deceiving consumers by falsely claiming to produce salmon using methods that are "sustainable," "natural," and follow "optimal" animal welfare standards.
“Cooke’s sustainability representations lead D.C. consumers to believe that its ‘sustainable’ farms ‘go above and beyond [its] regulatory requirements’ and its products are ‘ecologically sound,’ ‘naturally raised,’ and adhere to ‘optimal’ animal welfare standards,” Animal Outlook Senior Director of Legal Advocacy Piper Hoffman told SeafoodSource in July 2021, citing the complaint.
In July 2021, Pasichow refused to dismiss the complaint against Cooke.
However, in her latest decision closing the case, Paskchow said that Animal Outlook was able to provide the court with only one example of the sale of True North-branded farm-raised Atlantic salmon in D.C.
“A single sale of Martha Stewart for True North product to the District cannot sustain this suit, as a lone transaction of USD 39.99 (EUR 37.31) – only USD 19.99 (EUR 18.66) of which reflected the farm-raised Atlantic salmon at issue in this case – does not rise to the level a ‘substantial connection’ with the District,” Pasichow wrote in the order dismissing the case. “For this reason, and this reason alone, the Court lacks personal jurisdiction over defendants and the case must be closed.”
Cooke Aquaculture welcomed the dismissal of the lawsuit.
“We are appreciative that The Honorable Judge of the D.C. Superior Court dismissed the case,” Cooke Vice President of Public Relations Joel Richardson told SeafoodSource. “The fact is that today’s fish farming and other forms of aquaculture are the most environmentally sustainable forms of protein production and can help solve world hunger and local food security issues.”
The Cooke lawsuit dismissal comes after a January landmark Washington State Supreme Court case which ruled unanimously to reject a group of environmental organizations’ arguments, upholding a permit granted to Cooke Aquaculture Pacific by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife for the farming of Pacific Steelhead trout in Puget Sound, Richardson noted.
“That court dismissed the Wild Fish Conservancy, Centre for Food Safety, Centre for Biological Diversity, and Friends of the Earth arguments regarding possible adverse environmental impacts, with the Justices asserting they were without merit,” Richardson said.
However, Pasichow did not dismiss the complaint based on the animal welfare and sustainability counts brought against Cooke, and made it clear she may be sympathetic to some of its claims in her opinion.
"The Court is sensitive to plaintiff’s claims of animal cruelty and unhealthy practices alleged to be ongoing in defendants’ animal agribusinesses," Pasichow wrote. "Indeed, Plaintiff’s allegations that the water in Defendants’ open-net salmon pools is so dirty that ‘fungal infections are the norm’ and ‘live fish have their eyes eaten by fish who are underfed and hungry and mistake their pupils as food’ or that fish are routinely left to suffocate in garbage bins or were crushed by other fish stacked above them … are grotesque and reprehensible.”
Animal Outlook is “exploring its options” in regard to bringing additional litigation against Cooke, Hoffman told SeafoodSource.
The organization is also investigating “cruelty to aquatic animals and other unlawful practices in the industry,” and may bring legal actions against other seafood suppliers as well, according to Hoffman.
Pasichow’s decision also does not necessarily negatively impact other seafood sustainability lawsuits
“The court did not decide anything about the practices uncovered by Animal Outlook's investigation. Instead, the court found that the defendants were not making the representations directly to District consumers,” Jay Shooster, an associate with Richman Law and Policy – which represented Animal Outlook in the litigation – told SeafoodSource.
Plus, another recent court decision “found that manufacturers really are not allowed to mislead District consumers with deceptive sustainability claims about the seafood industry,” Shooster pointed out, referring to Pasichow’s rejection of a motion to dismiss a lawsuit alleging Aldi had been deceptive in its claims of sustainability for its fresh Atlantic salmon products.
Filed in January 2021, the lawsuit alleges Aldi's use of the phrase "Simple. Sustainable. Seafood." on its Atlantic salmon products “leads consumers to believe that the salmon was farmed in accordance with high environmental and animal welfare standards, but in reality, the salmon are sourced unsustainably,” Toxin Free USA, which is suing Aldi, said in a new press release.
In denying Aldi's motion to dismiss, Pasichow said Toxin Free USA had sufficiently alleged "factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.”
For its part, Cooke is “proud to offer True North Seafood products that meet a variety of certifications and recommendations to support sustainability,” Richardson said.
The Cooke family of companies ships one billion pounds of seafood annually, comprising 30 percent wild-caught species (wild salmon, whitefish, and shellfish) and 70 percent farmed species (Atlantic salmon, steelhead trout, white Pacific shrimp, sea bass, and sea bream).
“The global demand for seafood is steadily increasing. Currently, traditional fisheries can only supply half the global seafood demand. The other half of the global seafood supply already comes from aquaculture. And – since many fishing stocks are facing intense depletion – the world’s growing demand for seafood can only be met by increasing aquaculture production,” Richardson said. “Aquaculture will need to supply two thirds of the world’s seafood requirements by 2030. Without aquaculture, the world will face a seafood shortage of 50 to 80 million tons by 2030.”
Cooke appointed a Global Chief Sustainability Officer and has been awarded as one of the Top 25 Seafood Product Innovators as an “innovation-forward seafood supplier that is transforming the North America industry,” Richardson added.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons