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A deeper look into the Fair Oaks Farms incident

Update: As many of us suspected, prosecutors in this case have uncovered eyewitness reports that the activists capturing the footage coerced and encouraged the behavior depicted in the film. Please read the full article here. We will continue to keep you updated as the case progresses.

We read the writing on the wall and though aware of what was to come, nothing could have prepared animal agriculture from the unfortunate situation, arguably a modern tragedy, currently surrounding the undercover footage filmed at Fair Oaks Farm in Fair Oaks, Indiana.

Those of us with an ag-centric social media life found our platforms blowing up left and right. Condemnations, outrage, defense, controversy and argumentation filled the public and ag forums. I’ve spent more hours than I care to admit watching and contributing to conversations all over Facebook. As the situation progresses more details emerge and there is a far more elaborate story than in the initial single four-minute video. (At least two more have been released at the time of this publication). There are so many ways we can dissect this and go into the issues, concerns and where we go from here.

The situation

Back in April, Fair Oaks Farms released a written statement and video announcing they were aware a certain animal activist group (I will not be naming them, chances are you already know who they are by now anyway) had infiltrated their facilities with the distinct intent of producing and releasing an undercover video. Supposedly, the employees had been working at the farm about two years before they were uncovered. 

The initial undercover four minute video took like wildfire. Since then at least two other videos have been released containing over two hours worth of footage,

Here I often bring to the point, one tends to find what they are looking for. And if they’re looking for unsightly footage, they’ll find it one way or another either under heavy editing and over exaggeration, setting up certain situations, or finding times when, yes, even decent people, doing things they are not proud of. You could take any one of these techniques and craft such footage on universally any farm. Given the size, stature and positive public standing of FOF, it was inevitable they’d be a target. Note here also, activist footage is big money. Many others and I have found organizations such as PETA and HSUS writing job descriptions for undercover filmographers offering to pay hundreds to thousands of dollars for short films. Likewise, there have been a few instances where they’ve been caught embellishing certain situations but sadly, this doesn’t quite cut to the heartstrings of the public as their condemning videos do. 

Back to our story…. Months after the fact, the edited and narrated four-minute video is dropped – during June dairy month no less – to a whirlwind and frenzy bigger than I believed any of us imagined. And rightly so, the abuse is unmistakable and extreme…almost a bit excessively so but more on that later.

Shortly thereafter, Mike and Sue McCloskey, FOF founders, released another detailed statement to their Facebook page. Within the statement, they revealed three of the five employees had been fired months ago – before they even aware there was any undercover investigation going on. They were turned in to management by other farm coworkers not associated with the undercover activists. The fourth employee was fired the day of the video’s release and the fifth was a third-party hauler. 

The McCloskey family also took full responsibility for the unfortunate situation. They acknowledge their hurt and upset to learn what was going on, although again, the cause of the issue had been addressed some time ago. They promised to not only establish more efforts to increase animal welfare and prevent such an occurrence to ever happen again, but to keep the public regularly updated on the situation and their progress.

The following day Dr. Mike McCloskey DVM issued a video statement announcing the changes they were immediately going to implement. This included more rigorous and frequent third part audits, training new staff specifically to monitor welfare, intensive training protocol and continued learning programs for employees, work with law enforcement to prosecute violators and most importantly, install cameras on all areas of farm that will be available for 24/7 public viewing. He noted the reason camera were not used prior was he had hoped the employee trust would be strong enough it would not be necessary. Sadly, that was not the case.

Since then, the activist group has also released another 90-minute video and another four minute one focused on lactating cows. I believe these latter two videos hold much less weight to them as most of what they show isn’t really abusive, its mostly just regular activities (albeit unpleasant) taking place on a dairy farm. 

“Undercover investigations” are simply not effective ways to combat actual cases of animal abuse – but they do help to push an agenda. Check out this article from Animal Agriculture Alliance which explains why this is .

For example, the one video criticizes milking fresh cows who have not yet cleaned (I guess no one told them milking is necessary to hormonally stimulate proper cleaning?) and fresh cows not wanting to get in the parlor (imagine that!). Granted there was some inexcusable tail pulling and twisting, but most of it wasn’t true abuse. Another point the activists repeatedly brought up was the farm having a pile of dead calves and cows kept hidden from the public eye. Apparently, animals are not allowed to die.

Industry response

The dairy community met the tragedy with a very mixed bag of emotions and responses. Unfortunately, it turned into a mess of Fair Oaks supporters and Fair Oaks sworn enemies, or more simply small dairies versus big ones. Believe me, I was quite thankful our dairy Facebook groups are private, because the conversations painted some of the most disgusting and hateful of feelings within our industry.

Some gleefully took the opportunity to stand on a holier-than-thou platform and chide that a “mega dairy” such as this had such a case coming to them. After all, if you can’t be there on the farm all day every day to milk your own cows don’t you have too many? (A weak argument but I’ve tackled that in another article) They’ve also made the case that FOF put smaller dairies out of business as, allegedly, midwestern Krogers stocked their milk and dropped other contracts. Likewise, they accused the massive operation of taking over the markets thanks to their contract with Coca-Cola for Fairlife. This is an argument I don’t believe holds much water.

Fairlife milk enticed a lot of former milk drinkers on the fringe to come back to the world of dairy due to perceived lactose intolerance and similar concerns. The branding work done was pretty impressive as well, a sort of breath of fresh air into our markets. Alternatively, they’ve also looked to innovate certain new products such as post-work out recovery drinks – something our industry is sorely behind on. As a company, I have a lot of respect for them and trying to improve the industry on a global scale. In fact, one commenter swore he knew multiple small farms still in business because of Fairlife.

As far as them pushing out other markets, I’m of the crowd that considers Fairlife as having made its own niche. It can be likened to small dairies who established on-farm processing or value-added products and have catered to local markets and grew their businesses that way. There is plenty of room for individual business growth and revenue within the dairy economy for those who are truly innovative.

And of course, the contribution to agritourism and agricultural education through the FOF “Dairy Adventure” and “Dairy Learning Center” is certainly something to be commended. As one commenter put it “They’re trying to get people to fall back in love with dairy.”

Those who were quick to even celebrate this misfortune in the name of smearing the “mega dairy” image need be careful themselves. The agenda by the group who produced the footage is very clear. They state so at the end of the video – stop drinking all dairy products to end what you’re seeing on screen. 

Love or hate FOF, it’s important we stop and get a good dose of reality. These activists aren’t going to stop at the end of CAFOs and call it a day. They want to see the end of all animal use and production gone forever. And this instance leaves a scar across the entire industry, small, large, organic, conventional and anything else you can think of.

Media outrage

It didn’t take long for the FOF Facebook page to be spammed with angry emojis and even angrier comments. Local and national news stories lapped the original four-minute video right up. In fact, stories across several states were reported to be pulling Fairlife milk from their shelves.

Coca-Cola even caved to the pressure and made a public announcement they would be suspending milk purchases from Fair Oaks and its associated dairies for the time being. Just take a look at the Fairlife official Facebook page if you dare. 

Watching the sales and continued legacy of the Fairlife brand will be an interesting one to watch. A lot of agvocates online voiced support of the farm and brand encouraging continued sales. Likewise, a lot of FOF fans earned from the farms agritourism efforts have also come forward and banded their support, so hope is certainly not lost. 

Fair Oaks speaks

Personally, I believe the McCloskeys are to be commended for handling a situation to which, frankly, there is can never be a safe, textbook response to. In their initial written Facebook post immediately following the release of the original footage, they took the utmost responsibility for the genuine abuse that does occur. They also share their disgust and pledge to publicly follow up the steps they would be implementing to prevent such tragedies from ever happening on the farm again. As promised, the next day they responded with a video and stressed they were going to intensive third part audits, hire a full-time animal welfare specialist, and install 24/7 video monitoring system at all places on the farm that will be available for public viewing in the Dairy Learning Center. 

There are a couple of critical points poked at the response that I think are a bit valid and warrant somewhat of insight. For good reason, some folks have looked at the responses as “damage control” and pointed out if the employees at-fault were really fired before they knew of the investigation, why didn’t they say so in their April response when they mentioned being aware of the investigation? I agree that seems to be a lost opportunity. And I think they were a bit naïve going into that statement, believing there would be nothing found to fault them for in the released footage. But giving them the benefit of the doubt, I think it’s possible they may have felt it dangerous to acknowledge said employees were fired because of cruelty and then it not being filmed on the video and people assuming there were far worse things hiding on the farm the videos didn’t catch. Kind of raising an alarm without needing to instead of just firing them quietly if that makes sense. The right thing to do? Eh, that’s pretty iffy.

The McCloskeys were quick to respond to the situation and have since been faithful at providing updates on the situation and plans for improvement to the public with “complete transparency”

The second point was about the apparent veal facilities. I do have several issues with this. The big problem first and foremost was FOF has stated none of their bull calves go into veal, and the video investigation showed that was not true. Allegedly, the farm’s response was some miscommunication between managers had resulted in the sale of these calves unbeknownst to the owners in the partnership. That’s a pretty big “oops” if you ask me, and it wouldn’t have to be a big deal if you hadn’t made a public statement. 

The second point was the facilities themselves – yeah, they were pretty shitty and outdated. The individual stalls and slatted floors I don’t have an issue with, but some of the stalls were much too small for their calves. Plus, the old wood paneling and seemingly old-style barn with poor ventilation weren’t the epitome of modern (and healthy!) veal management. 

Dr. Hake Veal Vet, another social media ag presence, commented and said this facility was an outdated one and no longer in operation as the facility is currently being redesigned. Again remember, this was from many moons ago when the footage was first taken. 

Personally, I’m a little disappointed FOF didn’t address this issue in their statements or at least not as much. I was also never a fan about them saying they didn’t sell calves for veal, implying it was an unethical thing which is simply untrue. This could have been a great opportunity for them to advocate for the modern veal industry. I see that as a huge lost opportunity for them to be totally transparent about shipping their bull calves for veal and defending the industry. But hey, can’t have it all I suppose.

Activists at fault

Allegedly, the activist group had conducted their “investigation” for two years, though I’ve heard them claim only three months. Word is they are to be included in the legal action FOF is taking against the employees as well. In fact, the first arrest has been made as of right now.

It is important to note, FOF has a “see something say something” policy all employees are required to sign. Additionally, they must go through an animal welfare training program and continued education. The activists claimed this never happened but I’m suspicious for obvious reasons. 

There are also allegations of them staging some of the filming. I am very cautions as to how I will judge something being “staged” as FOF admitted the employees filmed were their hired workers. Now as to if these workers were previously planted by activists or, more likely, paid off to commit certain acts on screen is certainly a possibility. A strong possibility at that. I would highly, highly recommend checking out this post from our friends over at Protect the Harvest. The point out a lot of inaccuracies and claims that do make the videos look very suspicious. A bit lengthy, but well worth the read. As this investigation goes deeper, I have no doubt the truth, piece by piece, will come to light.

This would be a good place to remind you all there certainly is an agenda that’s a bit…how shall we say…nefarious and monetarily motivated behind a lot of these organizations? If you go to the website of this particular activist group you see a bold banner across every page: “DONATE NOW” I’ll let that one speak for itself.

The animal rights agenda has a deeper bottom line than what the public generally perceives.

I wish I could say that I knew for a fact a greater good would come from this. Not only would Fair Oaks buckle down on their animal welfare regulations and resume business as usual, but these activists’ groups would be exposed for their influence in the whole situation from (possible) staging to failing to report abuse to dishonest statements and over elaboration. Sadly, I can’t be so confident. Remember, a lie can make it half way across the world before the truth gets its pants on. And that’s exactly where we are, especially when the truth isn’t so clean cut.

And no, these occasional flare-ups will certainly never destroy animal agriculture as we know it, but they do hurt us on an industrial and individual level. Stay strong my fellow agriculturalists. Take care of your animals. Drink milk, eat meat, wear fur, ride horses, go to rodeos and keep fighting the good fight.

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