Grocers across the Midwest are pulling products distributed by a popular milk brand from store shelves after a shocking video, which revealed consistent abuse of calves at a major Indiana dairy farm, was released on social media this week.
The graphic footage taken from inside the dairy operations at Fair Oaks Farms, which is owned by the founder of the dairy company Fairlife (stylized as fa!rlife), was made public after an undercover investigation was conducted by the non-profit animal rights' group Animal Recovery Mission (ARM).
“These are really the last true concentration camps left on planet Earth,” Richard Couto, the founder of ARM, told NBC 5 Chicago on Wednesday.
“Employees were observed slapping, kicking, punching, pushing, throwing and slamming calves. Calves were stabbed and beaten with steel rebars, hit in the mouth and face with hard plastic milking bottles, kneed in the spine, burned in the face with hot branding irons, subjected to extreme temperatures, provided with improper nutrition, and denied medical attention,” ARM said in a statement accompanying the video that was posted on Facebook and Vimeo.
“This resulted in extreme pain and suffering by the calves, and in some cases permanent injury and even death.”
How was the animal abuse discovered?
ARM, which was established in 2010, describes itself as a “vanguard not-for-profit organization, dedicated to eliminating extreme animal cruelty operations worldwide.” The group, which promotes plant-based lifestyles, said that the footage was taken by an undercover investigator who recorded the animal abuse in 2018 while working at Fair Oaks Farms, which is roughly 75 miles south of Chicago.
The group says the investigator worked at the farm, which has previously been a popular site for school field trips and group tours, for several months. ARM also says that it did not set out to target Fair Oaks, but rather had its investigator apply to several farms in the area. The Fairlife supplier in Indiana was the first to offer a position.
Why stores are pulling Fairlife products
After the footage was posted on Tuesday and received fierce backlash from hundreds of commenters, food markets and convenience stores — including Jewel-Osco (which is the largest grocery store chain in Chicago), Tony’s Fresh, Casey's and Family Express — began removing Fairlife products from dairy fridges.
“At Jewel-Osco we strive to maintain high animal welfare standards across all areas of our business, and work in partnership with our vendors to ensure those standards are upheld,” a spokesperson for the grocery chain told TODAY Food. “We apologize for any inconvenience.”
Tony’s Express, which is also based in the Chicago metro area, said it will no longer carry Fairlife products “in light of the devastating news.”
“Thank you for voicing your concerns. We truly appreciate your understanding,” a spokesperson for the company said in a statement to the Chicago-Sun Times.
Indiana-based convenience store chain Family Express announced it would be replacing Fairlife products with similar items made by Organic Valley, a private company which is owned by a co-op of local farmers because, according to the chain, “Organic Valley treats animals differently.”
“The exposé of animal abuse in the Fair Oaks Farm network is chilling," a Family Express spokesperson said in a statement. "A factor in our decision was the public response by Fair Oaks, asserting the notion that this was an isolated incident. This is hardly the response you would expect from an organization that gets it. The minimizing of the graphic animal cruelty offers little assurance of change in a culture that is likely in need of fundamental retooling."
How has Fairlife responded?
In the wake of the controversy following the video's release, Fair Oaks Farms' founder Mike McCloskey announced that his company will be taking “full responsibility” and is “putting actions in place to ensure this never happens again.” On Wednesday, Fairlife LLC, which is distributed by the Coca-Cola Company in the U.S., announced that it had suspended all milk deliveries from the Fair Oaks Farms dairy farm identified in the video. McCloskey stated that less than 5% of his company’s milk supply originates at the Indiana farm seen in the video.
On its website, the company posted a statement acknowledging that the animal abuse did indeed occur and that its current farming practices had "failed" to meet its advertised standards, adding, "There is no excusing this behavior. It is wrong. It is not what we stand for, and we are committed to fixing this and moving forward together."
“Many of you have reached out to express your disappointment, heartbreak and anger regarding the videos released yesterday and we want you to know that we share those same feelings,” the company posted on Facebook.
McCloskey also released his own personal video statement, in which he addressed ARM's video and discusses his plan of action.
“As a veterinarian whose life and work is dedicated to the care, comfort and safety of all animals, this has affected me deeply," McCloskey said. "I am disappointed for not being aware of this kind of awful treatment occurring and I take full responsibility for what has happened." He said that four employees of the farm who were identified in the video have been terminated as a result of their actions and face possible criminal prosecution for violating animal care practices.
McCloskey said the video shines a light on the fact that his company needs to improve its employee onboarding procedures and overall commitment to animal welfare. He added that he wished ARM would have brought the video to light sooner, rather than waiting several months after the investigation was complete, in order to address the issues in a timely manner.
“I have personally reached out to ARM’s founder, Richard Couto, to discuss a more symbiotic relationship but he has yet to reach back,” he said.
Fans of Fairlife are shocked
Fair Oaks Farms was founded in 2004 by McCloskey (a veterinarian), who later joined with a larger co-op of dairy farmers to form the company that would become Fairlife in 2012. Since its founding, Fairlife has advertised itself as believing that "exceptional cow care and sustainable farming practices ... yield higher quality milk," and celebrated its eco-friendly methods, like turning cow manure into biofuel for its trucks. Over the years, company marketing materials often touted Fairlife farmers' ethical treatment of calves and dairy cows, saying they were "spoiled" from the start.
Fairlife's signature product is an "ultra-filtered," lactose-free milk that contains 50% more protein and 30% more calcium than most dairy milks. But, in many markets, it also costs about twice as much as the average milk — regardless of fat content. Other products include protein shakes and drinkable "snacks" with oats.
Coca-Cola, which has distributed Fairlife products across the country since 2014, also released a statement.
"At The Coca-Cola Company, we take animal welfare very seriously. We expect our suppliers to operate with the highest degree of integrity and comply with all laws, including animal welfare laws," Coca-Cola said Wednesday. "We have been in contact with fairlife about this situation and have full confidence in their management team to urgently address this issue with Fair Oaks Farms, which is a third-party supplier to fairlife."
The company said it plans to visit the 30 other dairies that currently supply Fairlife and will conduct independent, third-party audits over the next 30 days “to verify all animal husbandry practices at the farms, including all training, management and auditing practices. We will also continue to work with Fair Oaks Farms to ensure specific actions are taken to address this situation and uphold our high standards for animal care."
The Newton County Sheriff’s Office of Indiana is currently investigating the incident.
“We acknowledge the need for humane treatment of animals and the need to hold individuals that have gone beyond an acceptable farm management practice accountable for their actions,” a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office told TODAY.
“We have requested the names and identifiers of those terminated for animal cruelty by Fair Oaks Dairy Farms. We will also be seeking the identity of the witness to the alleged crimes that failed to report this activity for some time.”