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ARM Video on Fair Oaks Farms Dairy Creates Concern

06/18/2019

On June 4th, Animal Recovery Mission (ARM) released videos apparently depicting gross mishandling of calves, maltreatment of mature cows and other undesirable issues. The resulting publicity drew responses from other animal rights and welfare advocates in addition to the Coca-Cola Company, a partner in the FairLife™ brand of dairy products produced by Fair Oaks Farms. Both Fair Oaks Farm in Indiana and FairLife™ were co-founded and managed by Dr. Mike McCloskey and his spouse.

Following release of the videos, Dr. McCloskey issued a comprehensive and far-reaching         mea culpa. McCloskey stated “I am disgusted by and take full responsibility for the actions seen in the footage as it goes against everything that we stand for in regard to responsible cow care and comfort. The employees featured in the video exercised a complete and total disregard for the documented training that all employees go through to ensure the comfort, safety and wellbeing of our animals”.

This encapsulation of the statement is somewhat at variance with the opinion of Dr. Jan Shearer, an Extension Veterinarian at Iowa State University. Shearer was requested to comment on the videos by The Center for Food Integrity as a member of the Animal care Review Panel provided a lukewarm opinion acknowledging “handling issues” and noting that “management could have been done differently”. With respect to the video filmed in the milking parlor he saw “no willful animal abuse”. This over-generous appreciation cannot be extended to the handling of calves if the video represents an accurate depiction of events as recorded by the ARM agent and is not contrived or staged. For the purposes of this editorial, it is accepted that the videos were representative with respect to calves as noted by the comments by Dr. McCloskey and the subsequent legal action taken by the Newton County Sherriff’s office that has charged three workers identified by authorities. One perpetrator in custody is an illegal immigrant raising additional questions for a company claiming to be E-verify compliant.

I along with other veterinarians involved in the intensive animal industry express disgust and condemn the circumstances relating to care and management of the Fair Oaks herd. At least Dr. McCloskey has taken responsibility for the deficiencies in handling as recorded. Apparently when he learned that a video with negative implications for his company was about to be released, he requested a third party review, which was apparently favorable. Despite the report, Dr. McCloskey notes “It is a shock and an eye-opener for us to discover that under our watch, we had employees who showed disregard for our animals, our processes and for the rule of law”.

This case in which an admittedly welfare-conscious CEO was unaware of activities on farms under his control is unfortunately a familiar occurrence. Training programs can only go so far. The process of management incorporates the necessary stages of review to establish and document practices that promote welfare and prohibit willful abuse. These are only the initial steps in the process of maintaining a culture of responsibility. The second component of training is essential but at the end of the day, someone in authority must verify that procedures are followed. In this instance, there was clearly a deficiency with respect to direct supervision and monitoring of the activities of workers.

There is concern that events such as those presumed to have occurred at Fair Oaks Farms, that retribution is directed against the actual perpetrators representing the lowest level of operation. This has been seen in cases where hogs and cattle have been mishandled in lairage, gross misconduct in harvesting broilers, those operating killing rooms of broiler plants and in depletion of laying hens. 

Any disclosure that becomes the subject of media attention and is disseminated on the web is a problem for all participants in intensive livestock production. Understandably the public generally has a higher regard for animals, especially young livestock, in comparison to chickens, since there is a greater degree of identification with their pets. As an omnivore, I could be induced to remove veal from my diet as a result of viewing the videos, despite the fact that I am a poultry veterinarian with 50 years experience. How would a young mother respond to depictions of deliberate, callous and willful abuse of sentient animals?

The repercussions from the ARM videos as distributed will extend far beyond the acknowledgment and apology extended by Dr. McCloskey. The Coca-Cola Company has initiated an investigation since multinational companies are extremely concerned over brand image. FairLife® is the recipient of two class-action lawsuits from animal rights organizations alleging deceitful marketing practices. Unless the plaintiffs are regarded by the Courts as lacking in standing or if it is ruled that legal action is frivolous, Fair Oaks Farms will be subject to intensive discovery, which may prove embarrassing. At the very least Fair Life™ has lost brand image and Fair Oaks may even be obliged to change structure or ownership. 

The take-home lessons from the incident extend beyond documentation relating to animal handling and transcend training. The complete cycle of welfare management should emphasize inspection and control. Dr. Temple Grandin has correctly advocated for the installation of video cameras and recording systems in lairages, the killing rooms of hog and beef plants and in the hanging area of broiler processing facilities. A number of prominent turkey and broiler companies routinely video harvesting and transport. This is both a deterrent against deviation from accepted company policy and training but also to confirm good handling practices in the event of intrusion videos.

Since a company invests in developing procedures and in training, management of welfare compliance requires direct supervision. It is hoped that there are not many other Fair Oaks Farms in the intensive livestock industry. Unfortunately, disregard for welfare by upper levels of management will allow unacceptable practices by lower-echelon employees irrespective of comprehensive procedures manuals and training. In a commentary on the episode Hannah-Thomas Weeman of the Animal Agricultural Alliance contended that “it could happen to any of us”. Not so Ms. Weeman. Only in a Company with deficiencies in the cycle of management and a lack of responsible supervision and with inappropriate involvement by those responsible for the wellbeing of the enterprise.  

In the age of the web, brand value can evaporate as a result of a welfare incident. Prevention through sound management practices and commitment from executive levels downwards will contribute to acceptable practices and prevent nauseating video depictions.