People have been drinking cow's milk for thousands of years, but the nature of commercial farming has undergone vast changes in the past century. After a graphic video filmed at Indiana's Fair Oaks Farms — one of the country's largest dairy operations — was released earlier this month, more consumers are calling for retailers to cut ties with brands that have histories of documented animal abuse.
In the wake of the scandal, Fairlife (the national brand formally supplied by Fair Oaks) issued apologies and began conducting internal animal welfare investigations at multiple farms.
On June 12, however, new footage was released by Animal Recovery Mission (ARM) purportedly showing Fair Oaks workers punching adult cows, hitting them with metal poles and allegedly breaking the tails of some cows which did not cooperate with employees.
When reached by TODAY via email, a Fair Oaks Farms representative provided the following statement: "This is the same video that was released and covered last week, which includes footage that took place several months ago. Our focus remains on looking forward and making progress in the actions we’ve outline to enhance training and education for our employees, and ensuring the highest standards of care and welfare for our animals. For further information on the progress of our commitments, visit http://fairoaksfarmsprogress.com."
Though the newly released footage was taken last year by the same undercover agent who took video showing the farm's calves being abused, its release has trigged a new wave of protests as the brand continues to do damage control.
Though videos showing animal abuse across different types of farms are not new, the initial Fair Oaks video release sparked a substantial outcry due to the company's history of promoting its own sustainable farming practices and animal welfare.
The company's response to the first video — as well as multiple grocers' quick removal of Fairlife products — has signaled a change in public reaction where animals bred for dairy or even meat are concerned.
Inside the modern dairy industry
Advancements in reproductive technology have led to more calves being born on farms today, and most conventionally raised cows are now fed a diet of grain versus grass. As a result, cows today produce up to 7 times more milk than their predecessors. But that doesn't mean that all farming operations are large-scale operations like Fair Oaks Farms, which has 37,000 cows and is the largest dairy farm in the state of Indiana.
According to Alan Bjerga, the senior vice president of communications at the National Milk Producers Federation, about 94% of America's dairy farms have 500 or fewer cows. But that number is rapidly declining, with thousands of smaller dairy farms closing for business over the past two decades. Approximately 98% of the country's milk supply is represented through the National Dairy Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM), a program that sets animal care standards for participating farms.
But unless a farm is certified organic — meaning that farmers must abide by strict legal standards when it comes to the care, breeding and feeding of animals — it can be difficult to determine exactly how animals are treated on any property. Laws vary by state, but many, like Indiana, stipulate that dairy farms undergo a government-led inspection at least twice a year.
According to the USDA, cows raised on organic farms may not be given growth hormones of any type. But conventionally raised cows may be given both growth hormones and antibiotics, regardless of whether they are sick. Organic dairy farms must also allow their cows to be able to graze outside. Conventionally raised cows may spend the majority of their lives in pens or inside barns in cramped quarters.
None of Fairlife's farms are certified organic but shortly after the company (which was founded by a veterinarian) was formed in partnership with the Coca-Cola Company in 2012, it frequently advertised itself as spoiling its cows and adhering to a higher standard of animal care through sustainable farming practices.
"We’ve always known that the better you treat an animal, the happier and more productive she is," Fair Oaks Farms founder and owner Mike McCloskey said in a 2015 article. McCloskey, a retired veterinarian, and his wife Sue often used the word symbiotic to describe their relationship to their cows (which they referred to as their girls).
Now, the Chicago-based company is being sued for fraud since it promoted the “extraordinary care and comfort” of its cows on product labels and charged twice as much for its milk products. The suit alleges that this led many consumers to believe they were were paying a premium for that standard of care.
Fairlife is aware of the lawsuit and, in a statement provided to TODAY, said: "We are aware of the lawsuit and are reviewing it. fairlife is committed to the humane and compassionate care of animals. As we shared last week, we are taking immediate actions to ensure our high standards of animal welfare are being executed at each of our supplying farms."
Do farm animals have rights?
Fairlife has admitted that the calves seen in the undercover footage taken at Fair Oaks Farms were mistreated. Three former employees who were seen kicking and throwing calves in the first video released by ARM were charged with animal cruelty last week. One of those men has since been apprehended and arrested.
"For any case, we need to review each act individually to determine if it meets the state’s definition of cruelty or abuse," said Denise Derrer, Public Information Director at the Indiana State Board of Animal Health, who is helping with the investigation. Those found guilty of animal abuse usually face dual penalties of jail time and fines.
In addition to the state's laws, the board refers to FARM when it comes to industry standards for handling and care.
FARM mandates that all farm employees who handle animals must complete stockmanship training. They must also sign the Dairy Cattle Care Ethics Agreement on an annual basis. The form however, doesn't specifically define what constitutes abuse. Yet many farmers argue that it's in their best interest to treat their animals humanely. After all, it's their product and their livelihood at risk since most calves sell for between $500 - $1,000.
Derrer told TODAY that prior to the first video's release, her office had never received a complaint about Fair Oaks Farms.
"We have staff in the farm sites regularly," she said. "None of them have ever seen anything close to what was depicted on the video, even when performing their duties in the calf areas."
Fair Oaks Farms was a popular place
Since opening as a tourist attraction in 2004, Fair Oaks Farms has been considered the "Disneyland" of dairy farms. The farm, which still has a 4.5-star rating on TripAdvisor, welcomes about 500,000 visitors annually.
The venue's $20 all-day pass grants access to the farm's public areas, including a birthing barn — complete with stadium seating so visitors can watch calves being born. There's also a virtual reality lab showing how the farm recycles manure to power its machinery.
When it entered the national market in 2014, Fairlife quickly garnered a lot of attention for producing a milk with "superior nutrition." All of the brand's beverages are made using a patented, cold-filtration process where milk molecules are separated by different filters and then recombined in a formula with more favorable macro nutrient ratios. The result is a milk with more protein and calcium, and less fat and sugar, than conventional milk. One of the sugars, lactose, is eradicated completely making it safe to drink for those who are lactose intolerant.
One cup of Fairlife 2% milk has 120 calories, 6 grams of sugar, 4.5 grams of fat, 13 grams of protein and 40% of the daily recommended amount of calcium. One cup of regular 2% milk has 120 calories, 11 grams of sugar, 5 grams of fat, 8 grams of protein and 30% of the daily calcium recommendation.
But premium milk comes at a premium price. At Target, a 52-ounce bottle of Fairlife milk sells for $3.39. A 64-ounce jug of Market Pantry (Target's brand) milk is $2.39.
In the wake of the first video being released, retailers including Jewel-Osco, Tony’s Fresh Market, Casey's and Family Express have stopped selling Fairlife products.
Fairlife has since "discontinued the use of milk from Fair Oaks Farms" in its products.
The future of farming
Alan Bjerga insists that the U.S. dairy community takes the kinds of videos released by ARM very seriously and that it will not be forgotten anytime soon.
"Animal abuse in any form is not tolerated on US dairy farms," said Bjerga. "Isolated incidents such as this are not indicative of how our country’s dairy farm families operate."
Derrer added that during their most recent legislative session, Indiana's legislators made changes to the state's animal welfare laws, which include harsher punishment for those found guilty of animal abuse. The new laws will go into effect on July 1.
Consumers worried about supporting farms with inhumane practices may look for these brands and labels, which designate dairy producers that comply with the ASPCA's standards.