Fair Oaks animal abuse video: stores pull products, owner vows to make changes

Carol Spaeth-Bauer
Wisconsin State Farmer
Fair Oaks Farms, 856 N 600 E, Wednesday, June 5, 2019, in Fair Oaks.

As police investigate alleged animal abuse after an animal rights group released a graphic video showing workers kicking and throwing young calves at an Indiana dairy farm, retailers began pulling Fairlife products from their shelves.

Animal Recovery Mission (ARM) said that an investigator for the Miami-based animal rights group secretly recorded the disturbing footage last year while working for several months at Fair Oaks Farms, a popular destination for school field trips, which Food & Wine magazine has called the "Disneyland of agricultural tourism."

The group said that the footage shows the "daily mistreatment of the resident farm animals" at the farm's dairies about 70 miles south of Chicago.

Fair Oaks Farms, 856 N 600 E, Wednesday, June 5, 2019, in Fair Oaks.

"Due to the many years Fair Oaks Farms has been in business, it is impossible to number the amount of calves and cows that have inhumanely died at the hands of this company," said Rachel Taylor, a spokeswoman for Animal Recovery Mission.

Fair Oaks Farms is the flagship farm for Fairlife, a national brand of higher protein, higher calcium and lower fat milk. At least three retailers — Strack & Van Til, Jewel-Osco and Family Express — began pulling Fairlife products from their shelves Wednesday, June 5, in response to the video, 

The video shows newborn calves being thrown in and out of their huts by employees, young calves being kicked in the head and the carcasses of dead calves piled together in the dirt. The footage additionally shows employees striking calves with their hands and steel rods and being burnt with branding irons.

Fair Oaks responds

Watching the video broke Fair Oaks Farms founder Mike McCloskey's heart "and created a sadness that I will have to endure the rest of my life," Mccloskey said in a somber video response posted on June 5. 

"I am sorry and I apologize for the footage in this video," McCloskey continued.

McCloskey provided an update on how the situation was being handled.He explained how every employee goes through an animal welfare training before working on the farm and participate in continuous education training throughout the year. Additionally, employees sign a document agreeing to report any cases of animal cruelty that they see. 

All four employees seen in the video had gone through the training and signed the document McCloskey said in the video. Three had been reported by co-workers for animal cruelty and those three were terminated three months ago before the undercover video came to light. McCloskey was not aware of the actions of the fourth employee until seeing the undercover video on June 5. His employment was terminated the same day, according to McCloskey. 

McCloskey said in a statement Tuesday a fifth person shown in the video was a third-party truck driver who was transporting calves, he said.

"As a veterinarian whose life and work is dedicated to the care, comfort and safety of all animals, this has affected me deeply," McCloskey said. "I am disappointed for not being aware of this kind of awful treatment occurring, and I take full responsibility for what has happened. I also take full responsibility to correct and ensure that every employee understands, embraces and practices the core values on which our organization stands."

Related:Undercover video reveals animal abuse at Fair Oaks Farms

McCloskey described measures he would take to ensure "myself and all the public that this will never happen again," which includes installing cameras wherever there is interaction between the animals and employees, having a central location where the cameras can be monitored and contracting "with one of the best animal welfare organizations in the country to have frequent unannounced" audits on the farm. 

Cameras were not initially installed at the farm because McCloskey said as they trained employees on the farm's program and values, he wanted to build trust and felt that using cameras would demonstrate a "lack of trust."

"That was a terrible judgement on my part," McCloskey admitted in his video response. "The way we have to look at this is, you can always have bad people within your organization."

ARM not convinced

However, Richard “Kudo” Couto, founder of ARM, called McCloskey’s video response “nothing more than a PR move” that didn’t come close to solving problems and abuse shown in undercover videos.

“I saw literally less than one minute of it, when he was talking about the extensive training and all his employees go through,” Couto said. “Which was a lie. My investigator was never, ever trained there. Nor were any of the employees that were hired after we were hired – after we were there. They were given a milking bottle, thrown in a calf hutch and told to milk as fast as they could. No training. … That’s just a starting point.” 

A portion of the undercover video also showed what appeared to be an employee using cocaine in a work vehicle on site, while other footage showed what appeared to be marijuana plants being grown on the property.

McCloskey described the plants in his statement as an invasive perennial species.

The Newton County Sheriff's Office said in a statement Wednesday that it's requested the names of the now-fired workers and the person who shot the footage. The agency said it would work with the county prosecutor's office to determine if any criminal charges will be filed.

Tanya Webb of Cedar Lake holds a sign as she protests outside the entrance to Fair Oaks Farms, Wednesday, June 5, 2019, in Fair Oaks.

"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," the department said in its statement.

Politically motivated? 

State Sen. Travis Holdman, an Indiana lawmaker who drafted legislation in 2013 that would have barred undercover video filming at the state's agricultural operations, said the video is politically motivated. 

Holdman said it's too soon to say whether he'll refile the bill during the 2020 legislative session, The (Northwest Indiana) Times reported.

"Seeing as this is just a one-time incident that we're aware of, I don't think we need a knee-jerk reaction to do something legislatively necessarily," Holdman said. "I'm sure I'll be hearing from Farm Bureau folks about the incident and what they think needs to be done, if anything."

FILE - In this Jan. 27, 2016 file photo, State Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, speaks at the Statehouse in Indianapolis. Holdman, who drafted legislation in 2013 that would have barred undercover video filming at the state's farms says video exposing alleged animal abuse at a northwestern Indiana dairy farm is politically motivated. Holdman says he's undecided about refiling the bill during next year's session. An animal rights group released disturbing footage Tuesday, June 4, 2019, showing Fair Oaks Farm workers kicking and throwing young calves.

Holdman's bill would have made it a misdemeanor crime to snapshot or video record any agricultural or industrial activities without the property owner's written authorization. Legislators in at least 10 other states tried passing similar "ag-gag" laws, in part to discourage covert revelations of agricultural operations. But courts subsequently struck down several of those statutes as unconstitutional.

Holdman noted he has watched the Fair Oaks video and it's clearly politically driven because anyone who is concerned about animals would have attempted to halt the abuse.

"People who own farm animals want to take care of farm animals because they produce, and do what they need to do to be profitable, if you take care of those animals," Holdman said. "If you hire people that abuse them, they deserve to be fired."

He also criticized customers and businesses boycotting Fair Oaks dairy products after "an isolated incident."

"That doesn't solve the problem," Holdman added. "You just put people out of work when you do that."

The Associated Press and Dave Bangert, Lafayette Journal & Courier, contributed to this story.

Carol Spaeth-Bauer at 262-875-9490 or carol.spaeth-bauer@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at cspaethbauer or Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/carol.spaethbauer.