Fair Oaks Farms abuse: Animal welfare group documents calf abuse, sparks investigation
Law enforcement from northern Indiana is investigating Fair Oaks Farm, the largest dairy producer in Indiana and one of the largest in the country, after video from an undercover investigation showed cases of abuse and cruelty in the treatment of the farms’ calves.
At least one grocery store chain has announced that it is removing fairlife – a milk brand produced as a joint venture between Fair Oaks Farms and The Coca-Cola Company – from its shelves after the video was released.
Fair Oaks founder Mike McCloskey posted a statement on the Farm's Facebook page Tuesday acknowledging the animal abuse documented in a 12-minute video produced by a Miami-based animal welfare group called ARM, or Animal Recovery Mission. He blamed it on four employees whom he said he fired, and a truck driver who is no longer allowed on his property.
“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 regards to responsible cow care and comfort,” he said in the statement, which now has more than 13,000 comments. IndyStar's attempts to reach McCloskey were not returned.
Richard Couto, founder of ARM, told IndyStar the video footage was shot by an undercover investigator who was hired by Fair Oaks as a calf caretaker.
“The abuse began day one, hour one,” said Couto.
The undercover investigator worked at Fair Oaks at the Prairies Edge North Barn from August through November 2018. Fair Oaks has more than 10 different locations and Farms around northwest Indiana.
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The ARM investigator gathered more than 100 hours of footage, Couto said, adding that they expect to release a long video later this week. Couto would not make that investigator available, saying he is working on another investigation.
The footage showed the animals being separated from their mothers within hours of birth. Those calves then struggled to be fed with a bottle, which is when caretakers would become violent with the animals, sometimes picking them up and throwing them to the ground, throwing them against pens, and punching, kicking and stepping on them. A video showed one being beaten with steel rebar.
“That stems from the fact that calves weren’t eating and nursing from their bottles because they wanted their mothers,” Couto told IndyStar. “So that led to frustration and the abuse began.”
Some workers dragged and threw the calves into enclosures. Some calves were kept in small individual structures during extreme heat causing dehydration and overheating.
Couto said it was difficult for his investigator, who was trying to treat the animals with care, and he was screamed at and ridiculed by the other workers for going too slow.
Based on the footage released, the Jewel Osco grocery chain, which is based in Illinois and has some of its 187 stores in northwest Indiana, said it would stop using fairlife milk. Other grocers did not return messages seeking comment.
Fairlife is a brand of The Coca-Cola Company and is a low-fat and high protein milk the two companies are market to the health conscious. The owners of Fair Oaks Farms patented the cold-filtration technology used to produce a drink with 50 percent more protein, 30 percent more calcium and half the sugar of ordinary milk, according to a Feb. 3, 2015 article on Coca-Cola's website. Coca-Cola and Fair Oaks Farmfairlife and Core Power protein shakes.
Coca-Cola said in a statement to IndyStar that it takes animal welfare very seriously. It said the company has “full confidence” in fairlife’s management to “urgently address this issue with Fair Oaks Farms.” Fair Oaks has suspended all sourcing for fairlife from the dairy location identified in the video, according to Coca-Cola.
The company said that they "fully support and respect the proactive approach that fairlife and Fair Oaks Farms have taken and we continue to stay in contact with them to lend any support they need."
In his statement, McCloskey said that the company was able to determine five individuals – four Fair Oaks employees and one contracting truck driver – that were responsible for “committing multiple instances of animal cruelty and despicable judgment.”
The Fair Oaks founder added that three of the four farm employees had already been terminated in months prior because they were identified by co-workers as being abusive. The fourth employee continued to work there but was terminated on Tuesday.
The Newton County Sheriff’s Office has asked for the names of the individuals fired by Fair Oaks Farms. The sheriff also would like to get the identity of the ARM investigator who witnessed the crimes and “failed to report this activity for some time,” according to Newton County Sheriff Thomas VanVleet.
"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," VanVleet said in a statement.
McCloskey has also said in his statement that he finds it concerning that ARM did not notify him or authorities for months about the ongoing animal abuse. “It was 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,“ his statement said.
But Couto said that he believes McCloskey was aware of the cruel treatment taking place at Fair Oaks
“He is a seasoned dairy man and doesn’t need me to point out what is wrong with his company,” Couto said. “He is playing the innocent bystander here, but it is his corporation and he knows what is go on.”
The state Board of Animal Health, which is coordinating with the Newton County Sheriff on its investigation, said that it has never had to investigate Fair Oaks over the last 20 years since it opened. It also has never had an animal welfare complaint, according to Denise Derrer, the board’s public information director.
She told IndyStar that the agency does not inspect farms for animal welfare and care because it does not have enough people to do that for the 64,000 farms it oversees. However, the agency investigates complaints it receives and inspects farms at least twice a year for sanitation for food production.
Derrer said that the inspector for Fair Oaks as well as the veterinarian who is on the property every few months has not witnessed anything along the lines of the actions and treatment seen in the video and that they were surprising to the veterinarian.
Fair Oaks Farms, which has been coined the “Disneyland of Agricultural Tourism,” has a Dairy Adventure on the property where they claim to peel back the curtain and show attendees how milk is produced and teach them about sustainability, cow health, safety and the nutrition of the milk.
It was actually that Adventure and the reputation that first caught Couto’s eye and led him to book a flight up to Indiana to check out the operation. He said that some red flags went up when he felt that the tour guides were not sharing their whole story.
Couto, a Florida real estate developer, founded ARM in 2010. In addition to the investigation at Fair Oaks Farm, ARM has released information documenting alleged abuse, illegal horse slaughter, animal sacrifice and other misdeeds in the U.S. and Mexico.
Couto's non-profit deploys undercover investigators who apply for and get hired as entry-level farm hands. They use their behind-the-scenes access to covertly gather video of alleged animal abuse.
While undercover, the investigator also documented some apparent drug abuse by a few employees. Fair Oaks Farms is investigating all aspects of the video, McCloskey said in his statement, after which "disciplinary action will be taken, including termination and criminal prosecution."
McCloskey said the worker depicted using drugs in the video was turned in months ago by a co-worker. A manager called police and made a police report, McCloskey said.
But he denied the video's claim that marijuana had been cultivated on Fair Oaks Farms property. "The plants featured in the video are an invasive perennial species that is rampant on farms all over the Midwest," McCloskey said.
Fair Oaks Farms is a museum, restaurant, gift shop and hotel built around a working dairy farm. It's located in Fair Oaks, Indiana, just off I-65, about 109 miles north of Indianapolis and 76 miles south of Chicago.
The farm, where more than 15,000 cows are milked daily, has long been a popular school trip for kids from Indiana and neighboring states. Fair Oaks Farms attracts more than 600,000 visitors a year.
IndyStar reporter Vic Ryckaert contributed to this story.
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