UPDATED: Fairlife Faces Backlash After Video Unveils Farm Animal Abuse

At least two Midwest retailers are pulling Fairlife products from their shelves after an undercover video released this week showed graphic abuse of cows at the Coca-Cola-aligned brand’s flagship dairy farm.

Indiana-based convenience chain Family Express, grocer Strack & Van Til, and Illinois-based, Albertsons-owned grocer Jewel-Osco said in separate statements this week they are removing Fairlife, which produces a variety of “ultrafiltered” milk products, from their respective stores. The decision comes after animal rights organization Animal Recovery Mission (ARM) released video footage earlier this week from an undercover investigation that revealed widespread abuse of cattle at Fair Oaks, Ind.-based Fair Oaks Farms, which is owned by Fairlife founder Mike McClowsky.

“At Jewel-Osco we strive to maintain high animal welfare standards across all areas of our business, and work in partnership with our vendors to ensure those standards are upheld,” the company said in a statement.

A spokesperson for Albertsons told BevNET that the decision to pull Fairlife was made independently by Jewel-Osco management and that no other Albertsons banners currently have plans to drop the brand. The company has been in contact with Fairlife and “will assess next steps to ensure” future compliance with the company’s humane standards, according to the spokesperson

When reached by BevNET, a representative for Family Express referred comment to a statement released yesterday. The company said it has cancelled pending orders placed with Coke and will replace Fairlife in its stores with Organic Valley products, which operates 143 farms in Indiana.

“The exposé of animal abuse in the Fair Oaks Farm network is chilling,” the company stated. “A factor in our decision was the public response by Fair Oaks, asserting the notion that this was an isolated incident. This is hardly the response you would expect from an organization that gets it. The minimizing of the graphic animal cruelty offers little assurance of change in a culture that is likely in need of fundamental retooling.”

The video released by ARM this week showed repeated acts of animal cruelty by workers at Fair Oaks Farm, including beating, kicking, and tossing newborn calves. The footage is sourced from a four-month undercover investigation conducted between August and November 2018, during which ARM members gained employment with the company in order to film on site. In addition to animal abuse, the video also purports to show illegal cannabis crops being grown at the farm as well as footage of workers smoking cannabis and using cocaine on the job.

Fairlife and Fair Oaks Farm founder Mike McCloskey discussed plans to correct the animal abuses in a video posted to YouTube on Wednesday.

In a statement released Wednesday, Fairlife said it has taken several steps to correct the abuses shown in the video. According to the company, Fair Oaks Farms is one of approximately 30 dairies used by the brand and accounts for less than 5% of its total milk supply. Fairlife said it has immediately suspended all milk deliveries from Fair Oaks Farm.

As well, the company stated that the four employees identified in the ARM video have been fired and the video has been provided to local Indiana law enforcement “to review for potential criminal charges against the individuals involved.” The farm has also commissioned Food Safety Net Services Certification & Audit to conduct an independent audit of its animal welfare practices. Finally, the farm has also committed to receiving unannounced audits from an animal welfare organization and will install video surveillance cameras on site to ensure its animal welfare standards are met.

In a video, McCloskey said Fair Oaks Farm trains all employees on animal welfare and that three of the four employees shown in the video had previously been reported to the company and fired for abuses before the company was aware of the ARM investigation. As well, McCloskey took responsibility for the lack of surveillance cameras on site, stating that he had sought to create a culture of trust among employees.

“The way that I have to look at this is as hard as we try you can always end up with bad people within your organization, and this is what happened to us,” McCloskey said. “So it is imperative that we make sure that every part of this farm can be observed from one focal center with an individual who is trained to be watching every screen of all these cameras and making sure 24 hours a day that our animals are never suffering any animal abuse.”

Coca-Cola said in a statement that it has been in contact with Fairlife and has “full confidence in their management team” to address the issues at Fair Oaks Farm.

According to Northwest Indiana news outlet NWI.com, the Newton County Sheriff’s Department has requested the names of the individuals shown in the video and is exploring criminal charges. As well, NWI reported that ARM intends to release additional video in the coming weeks, showing conversations with management that acknowledge the abuse.

UPDATE 7:35 P.M.: Speaking with BevNET, ARM founder Kudo Cuoto called McCloskey’s response “typical” and similar to that of other dairy producers the organization has filmed in the past.

“What we videoed at Fair Oaks Farms and the Fairlife company, we’ve videoed at every other dairy that we’ve ever been undercover in,” Cuoto told BevNET. “It’s an industry issue.”

Cuoto alleged “top tier” management was aware of the abuse and said video conversation with managers discussing the issue will be released on Friday. Cuoto also challenged McCloskey’s timeline of the firings, alleging the Fairlife founder was made aware of the investigation over a month ago.

This afternoon, Midwest Veal, a North Manchester, Ind.-based veal farm, released a statement confirming that it had purchased calves from Fair Oaks Farms for veal production, despite Fair Oaks’ previous repeated claims that it does not sell its livestock to veal producers. According to NWI.com, McCloskey said he was unaware of the sales.

Cuoto said ARM did not have any contact with Jewel-Osco prior to the store’s announcement. However, he praised its decision to drop Fairlife from its shelves and said he has been in contact with representatives from retailers who told him they are considering pulling the brand.

“We didn’t ask [Jewel-Osco] to remove the Fairlife product from the shelves,” Cuoto said. “I don’t know a lot about them but they sound like a decent, ethical, moral company that does not want to deal with people who abuse animals for their products. It’s awesome and amazing for them.”

However, at least one industry voice has come to Fairlife’s defense thus far. Writing in Dairy Herd Management this afternoon, Farm Journal dairy editorial director Mike Opperman said he was against a consumer boycott of Fairlife and suggested the brand should continue to use milk from Fair Oaks Farm while taking efforts to ensure the abuse ends.

“I am also able to put context around the footage shown in the video and, therefore, assume that what happened was an isolated incident,” Opperman wrote. “That undercover employee collected a vast amount of video over their several months of employment. From that vast amount of video they were able to find a few minutes of abuse. Let’s see the rest of the footage that shows animals being cared for the right way.”