Imagine being removed from your mother’s care at birth. As you instinctively long for the nurture that only she can provide, you are instead deposited into a filthy plastic hutch and angrily force fed from a plastic bottle. And if you don’t drink, you are kicked in the face. This is the kind of brutality that was uncovered by the non-profit Animal Recovery Mission [ARM] at Indiana’s Fair Oaks Farms, the flagship dairy farm of Fairlife, a Coca-Cola subsidiary. In two videos released earlier this month, Fair Oaks employees are seen inflicting astonishing abuse on newborn animals and mother dairy cows. The two-part investigation — Operation Fair Oaks Farms Dairy Adventure and Operation Fairlife — is the largest ever conducted into the dairy industry and took place over the course of several months in 2018 and 2019.

 

Fair Oaks Farms has long billed itself as an industry leader in animal welfare. Here, they claimed, calves were “spoiled,” and employees were rigorously trained to provide “utmost respect” to cows. But ARM’s footage and subsequent 125-page report reflected how on a routine basis, calves were allowed to starve, denied medical attention, subjected to extreme temperatures, punched, thrown, slapped, and burned with hot branding irons by Fair Oaks employees. Mother cows were documented losing their voice from screaming for their offspring, left to suffer from broken tails inflicted by frustrated workers, being beaten for not entering a milking carousel and then getting caught in machinery.

An agritourism destination geared at families, where for $29 you can go on a Dairy Adventure tour and “enjoy” live birthing exhibits, 4D movies and even a rock-climbing wall, Fair Oaks Farms has always publicly denied that its male calves are killed for veal. However, the investigation revealed calves being crowded into trucks and transported to MidWest Veal.

Since being released, the horrific videos have been viewed by millions, shared by the likes of singer Billie Eilish, and received unprecedented media coverage. Protests have taken place in Chicago and Atlanta, pressuring Coca-Cola to drop Fairlife, with more scheduled. Three Fair Oaks workers have been charged by the Newton County Sheriff’s Office with a Class A misdemeanor; one has been arrested, and two are still at large. Four proposed class action lawsuits have been filed against Fairlife for engaging in consumer fraud, one of which names Coca-Cola as a co-defendant. Many grocery chains, including Jewel-Osco, have pulled Fairlife from shelves.

Fairlife dairy cruelty

At Fair Oaks Farms, calves are kept exposed to the elements, whether boiling heat or freezing cold. Here, ARM’s undercover investigator documents a temperature of 102 degrees Fahrenheit. There have been no plans made by Fair Oaks or Fairlife to eliminate this form of confinement, as that is “standard practice” in the dairy industry. (Video still courtesy of ARM)

Fair Oaks Farms, Fairlife and Coca-Cola have all put out statements promising various measures like imposing zero-tolerance animal cruelty policies and unannounced audits to ensure “there are no systemic animal welfare issues.” According to ARM, the Fair Oaks facilities were already equipped with their own surveillance which did not deter cruelty. LAIKA spoke with ARM’s founder Richard “Kudo” Couto about the impact of the investigation and why the dairy industry is by definition an animal welfare issue.

LAIKA: How would you describe your big picture outlook?
Richard Couto: As an investigator, I investigate to put the bad guy in jail or in prison. But with factory farm investigations, [the goal] is more towards educating the public on what’s really going on in the world of animal agriculture and what’s been hidden — the lies that people have been told for so long. Especially in the dairy industry. I’ve been lied to most of my life, and I feel betrayed. Which is why I’ve taken on the dairy industry the way I have. My plan is to end the dairy industry. And, listen, with ARM or without ARM, it’s around the corner. It’s an industry that’s failing. People are starting to understand the health implications, the environmental implications. And now, with ARM and other defense organizations’ investigations, people are understanding how the animals are treated, that there are no happy cows in dairies. It’s a fallacy. It’s a fictitious story made up by the industry.

“My plan is to end the dairy industry.”

Do we as a movement push for welfare reform and more humane conditions or direct our energy towards, like you said, just shutting the whole thing down?
There’s no welfare reform in a dairy operation. It doesn’t exist. I am a professional investigator. If I knew that there were ways to reform the dairy industry, I would be the first one to do it. Unfortunately, that is not reality. Just ripping a baby away from its mother — I don’t care what [animal] it is, a dog, a cat or a cow — puts that animal and that baby in jeopardy and is inherently cruel. And as many are starting to understand, that’s the real basis of the dairy industry. So how do you change that? You don’t, you can’t.

That’s the foundation of their business model.
Well it is. Yeah. My question to [Fair Oaks owner] Mike McCloskey was, ‘I’ve shown you behind the scenes of your own operations and the brutality and the jeopardy that you’re putting the newborn babies in. [Will] you keep the babies right when they’re born with their mothers, at least until they’re weaned which is about three or four months old?’ And he hasn’t responded to me and that’s why he hasn’t gone public in person or given interviews. Because he’s going to be asked questions that he just cannot answer as a dairyman.

What was your reaction to the video that McCloskey put out where he was on the verge of tears?
Mike McCloskey is a dairyman and has been all of his life. He knows exactly what transpires in a dairy. He knows how calves are loaded up for transport, how frustrated the workers become when the babies won’t eat. He knows many of the babies won’t eat. He knows the extreme temperatures in summer and winter that they’re dying from. What we have shown him, what we have shown the world, is nothing new to the dairy industry. As far as him tearing up, it was a show. Michael McCloskey has built a multimillion dollar company, and I know the guy is a genius businessman. He is in damage control mode right now. So he, I’m certain, is surrounded by PR companies, by his attorneys. It is so incredibly unprofessional and childish to address such an immense issue through a YouTube post. It’s laughable.

That behavior is emblematic of the dairy industry’s deception in many ways, isn’t it?
It’s a guilty party addressing the public is what it is. It’s someone that needs to make sure that the message is correct. Which is why it was edited and why they don’t want Q & A’s. Because [McCloskey] can’t properly answer them.

Some people might ask why not go public at the first instance of abuse. What’s your take on that?
The first investigation ended in November, but we had other investigations going on simultaneously and after. I don’t go public with any case until all of my investigators are out of the field if we’re investigating one company or one geographical area. I’m responsible for the safety of those investigators. Until everyone is finished, no one goes public. Our ID can’t be blown until I have all my guys out of the field. Our job as an investigator is to get to the root of the issue, to show [that it’s] not just one kick of an animal, but that it’s an ongoing issue. And it’s an industry issue, which is why we did more than one investigation at once on Fairlife.

You’ve called for charges to also be brought against McCloskey. Why is that important?
If you have a individual that is paying people, and they’re committing crimes against animals, and it’s not just one or two crimes, but it happens on a daily basis, on an hourly basis for months and months, then that owner should be charged legally. And, you know, of course it’s not gonna happen. Fair Oaks Farms basically controls the town of Newton County, Indiana. [Because of ] the connections that they have with [authorities], it would never happen.
From the editor: Since our interview with Couto, the Newton County prosecutor’s office has alleged that ARM “coerced” the violence they recorded. ARM categorically denies the claims and points to prosecutor Jeff Drinski’s conflict of interest (his daughter is a Fair Oaks employee, his family is a member of the “We Stand With Fair Oaks Farms” Facebook group, and Drinski himself is a partner in a beef cattle operation.)

Aside from the media coverage and the convictions, what is your hope for the outcome from the Fairlife investigation?
Knowing how easy it was for me to give up dairy and go plant-based — it was so easy, and I was such a big, big dairy consumer, I loved it — [it] is to see alternative dairy products skyrocket from this investigation. Your average family is now sitting back and saying, ‘Okay, this is a really bad investigation and that abuse was awful. But we’re also hearing that all the milk brands are awful, so maybe we should try almond milk this week.’ So [I want] for that really to radiate around the world. This investigation, [and] ARM, were specifically put together to get to your average American Joe and Jane. We are very relatable to those people because most of us are those people. We were big meat eaters and dairy consumers not too long ago. A lot of people don’t put themselves in that animal’s position. But I think once you do that, you get it, you know?

Story and interview by Julie Gueraseva


Go Dairy-Free

If you’re looking to eliminate dairy cheese, try these brands:
Miyoko’s Creamery, Follow Your Heart, Daiya, Kite Hill, So Delicious, Treeline, Violife.

If you’re looking to eliminate dairy milk, try these brands:
Oatly, Silk, Califia, Ripple, Edensoy, Elmhurst, So Delicious, Rice Dream.

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