By Matt Reese
Whether they are specifically written down or not, most farms and agribusinesses operate on the foundation of a code of ethics or principles. The core values of one of the nation’s top agritourism destinations recently came under intense scrutiny when an undercover video was released.
Indiana-based Fair Oaks Farms has been all over the news after Animal Recovery Mission (ARM) released a video depicting animal abuse on the large dairy farm. In the aftermath of the video release retailers pulled Fair Oaks’ Fairlife products from their shelves, three people from the video were charged with animal cruelty and Fair Oaks temporarily suspended delivery service to protect delivery service drivers who have been harassed. Fair Oaks Farms is also being sued for fraud citing the Fairlife milk labels promoting “extraordinary care and comfort” of the cows.
Going into this, Fair Oaks had clear standards for animal care, but employees featured in the video did not adhere to those standards.
“It is with great disappointment to find, after closely reviewing the released ARM video, that there were five individuals committing multiple instances of animal cruelty and despicable judgment. Of the five, four were our employees and one was a third party truck driver who was picking up calves. Of the four who were our employees, three had already been terminated prior to us being made aware months ago of the undercover ARM operation, as they were identified by their co-workers as being abusive of our animals and reported to management,” said Mike McCloskey, founder of Fair Oaks Farms in a statement. “So, in this instance our policy of cow care training — ‘see something, say something’ — worked. After reviewing the video frame-by-frame, those three employees are responsible for the overwhelming majority of offenses seen in this video. Unfortunately, the fourth employee’s animal abuse was not caught at that same time. Although he underwent another training session in animal care when we discovered there was an undercover ARM operation on our farm, after viewing the extent of his animal abuse, he is being terminated…”
In addition, the fifth individual from the transportation company will not be allowed on Fair Oaks farms again. Also in his response, McCloskey promised to raise their standards by adding cameras to all areas of human/animal interaction on the farm to be monitored by a staff member and the visiting public. Fair Oaks is increasing the number of routine third party audits and hiring a full-time animal welfare specialist as well. Unfortunately, as seen in the video, even the best intentions and strictest standards can fall short.
Candace Lease works in the Ohio dairy industry for ST genetics as sees first hand the care standards on many dairy farms in her duties every day.
“I work with dairies of all shapes and sizes for my job. I go to anything from a 50-cow dairy to 5,000. There is a gold standard most everyone follows most of the time, but as anyone with livestock knows, there are situations where things are out of your control. Things happen. I am very against these shock videos and I usually don’t even watch them. I did watch this video so I could comment on it. There was definitely some abuse and some things that should have been handled differently. That has definitely been acknowledged by Fair Oaks themselves,” Lease said. “There were also things that were misconstrued. There was a clip of a calf being tubed because it wouldn’t drink its colostrum. That is really important because you have to get that colostrum in the calf as soon as possible. If the calf isn’t going to drink, that is a necessary thing. I don’t know that anybody loves doing it, but you have to for the good of the calf. They also made a big point about freeze branding. It probably is ouchy for a few seconds, but it is like any procedure that we have. We all go to the dentist and it can hurt for a little bit, but that is part of having care for some things.”
Nonetheless, Fair Oaks’ reputation has taken a serious blow from the video and it may never fully recover. But, I wonder what those being so critical of Fair Oaks would think if the same level of scrutiny was applied to the folks at ARM who disseminated the video through a series of deceptive practices, manipulation and extremely questionable ethics.
“To say these groups are just there for the animal’s welfare is really hard for me. I can’t imagine people who are really there for the welfare of the animals could just stand there for months watching things like that happen,” Lease said. “I don’t want to assume that anyone has bad intentions, but when you watch somebody for months and don’t do anything or say anything about it, you have to wonder.”
All dairy farms, and livestock farms in general, can learn some lessons from Fair Oaks.
“Do we all need to be on guard for these kinds of situations? Anyone who hires employees is at risk. Labor is getting harder to find and keep. This makes it even harder. How do you trust people?” Lease said. “This could have happened to anybody, unfortunately. Remember there could always be other eyes watching. Make sure you are not doing things where you would be embarrassed for other people to see what you are doing. And if you are not involved in agriculture, it scares me to think that this may be the picture of dairy farming you may have. If you know someone you trust in the agricultural industry, please ask them questions.”
Both before and after the release of the undercover video, Fair Oaks has clearly emphasized transparency, high welfare standards for the animals and honesty. It would certainly be novel if those determined to make undercover videos on livestock farms would do the same.
For more on the standards of Fair Oaks, visit fofarms.com/post/accountability/.