Falling sales of carbonated beverages1 likely prompted The Coca-Cola Co. to make an undisclosed investment in a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) Fair Oaks Farm, where travelers have the option to purchase a meal and tour a dairy operation.
Coke teamed with Select Milk Producers (created by Fair Oaks owner Mike McCloskey), currently one of the top 10 and fastest-growing milk cooperatives in the country,2 and Fair Oaks Farms (owned by the McCloskey husband and wife team) to form Fairlife LLC.3
Although a recent investigation spearheaded by the Animal Recovery Mission (ARM)4 has revealed horrific and inhumane animal treatment on the Fair Oaks dairy farm, it is not the first time Coca-Cola has come under the microscope for unethical practices.
In 2008, Common Dreams5 reported the University of Michigan mandated an independent assessment of operations in India if Coca-Cola wanted continued business with the University. Reports had emerged showing communities were losing groundwater supply after bottling plants were established.
The assessment found The Coca-Cola Co. approached operations in India from a “business continuity” perspective, ignoring any impact on the community, overexploiting groundwater usage and burdening communities. Coca-Cola has also been implicated in influencing China‘s obesity policies, promoting exercise over nutritional intake to increase their sales.6
June 4, 2019, ARM released the first of several videos shot by an undercover investigator who had infiltrated the Fair Oaks Dairy in November 2018. The footage is graphic and disturbing.7,8
In a press release dated June 6, 2019, The Coca-Cola Company stated: “Last week, we were devastated to see a video from Animal Recovery Mission (ARM) showing acts of animal cruelty …” the timing of which appears to indicate they had early access to the information.9
Fairlife — Not so fair a life after all
After the investigator from ARM was hired at Fair Oaks, he reported receiving no work orientation and immediately observed abuse.10 The undercover investigator told ARM he had notified supervisors within Fair Oaks Dairy. He alleges the staff, including foremen and upper management, were aware of the abuse and the animal abusers were never reprimanded.
In conjunction with the release of the videotaped abuse at Fair Oaks Farm, the Newton County Sheriff’s Office received a binder including a summary of the investigation and an external hard drive with video and audio footage captured at Fair Oaks.11 Thus far, ARM has released three videos documenting animal abuse and cruelty.
In the first two, the video showed calves at Fair Oaks being thrown, hit and kicked in the head, dragged by the ears and burned with branding irons. The carcasses of dead calves were piled together in a working dairy that has doubled as America’s only dairy theme park,12 offering tours like Dairy Adventure,13 where families could witness the “fun-filled life of a cow.”14
Fair Oaks has been described as Fairlife’s “flagship farm,”15 where cows were milked on rotating carousels behind glass windows, so tourists could watch. What stayed out of sight were what the behind-the-scene videos show: Workers pushing, hitting and prodding cows reluctant to get onto the rotating milking platform, and cows getting caught in the machinery and falling off.
The investigator reported he did not witness any medical attention given to the animals, nor did any of the footage caught by the hidden camera worn by the investigator during his months on the farm record any treatment. The Indy Star reported the investigator found cows with infected eyes, broken and bleeding tails, infected udders, limping and too weak to walk.16
Poor living conditions, the discarded bodies of dead cows and the regular sounds of gunshots as cows and calves were euthanized were not uncommon.17 After birth, the investigator saw the females forced back onto the carousel while the newborn calves were separated from their mother and kept in below-freezing sheds.18
Inhumane behavior found throughout the dairy farm
Rachel Taylor, ARM’s public relations director, said of Fair Oaks in the Indy Star:19 “They claim very very publicly that it’s about transparency. But they are not showing the public everything that happens.”
Although the initial news reports lay the blame on four employees,20 A.J. Garcia, director of investigations for ARM, reported the investigator had informed upper management of what was happening, and nothing was done.
The original videos also showed workers at Fair Oaks using drugs on the farm, and the third video demonstrates abuse being carried out by a different set of Fair Oaks employees during a different period than the first two videos.
Garcia was asked why he and ARM did not go to the police with their initial information in 2018. He explained ARM wanted to build a strong case and not put their undercover operative at risk. He told the IndyStar:21
“We need to have evidence that this happens on a daily basis, and it’s not one week, it’s not one month, it’s every day. We need to be able to show that to the public, so that people don’t say this only happened that day, this only happens when only this worker is there. So we need to be able to provide long-term evidence.”
Warning — Graphic descriptions quoted below
Despite reports of abuse, Mike McCloskey, co-founder of the Fair Oaks Farm and a veterinarian,22 allegedly had no knowledge of what was happening on his own farm. Once the videos were released, Fairlife milk was pulled off the shelves at a number of retailers, including Jewel-Osco and Pete’s Fresh Market.23
Joel Kerr, executive director for the Indiana Animal Rights Alliance, spoke to a reporter from the Indy Star, saying he was not surprised by the release of the extended 90-minute video from ARM. He went on:24
“Last week the videos were released, Fair Oaks then said it was only a few people, it was just an isolated incident, and they were going to fix the problem. The video that came out today shows it clearly was not an isolated incident, it was multiple employees on multiple Fair Oaks properties.”
Richard Couto, founder of ARM said in a statement:25
“We waited so long to go public from this because we had to get all undercover operatives out of the field. The release [Tuesday] and the release of Operation Fair Oaks Farms is a very small portion of our investigation. This is going to go on and continue. Releases are forthcoming.”
In a video, Couto said:26
“The calf abuse is by far the worst baby abuse that we’ve seen ever, undercover, in any investigation, anywhere in the world. The newborn babies … are so incredibly brutalized, not once a day, not twice a day — all day.”
In a statement, ARM said the investigator spent three months hired as a calf care employee at the Prairies Edge North Barn. NBC News Chicago printed part of the statement from ARM:27
“Employees were observed slapping, kicking, punching, pushing, throwing and slamming calves. Calves were stabbed and beaten with steel rebars, hit in the mouth and face with hard plastic milking bottles, kneed in the spine, burned in the face with hot branding irons, subjected to extreme temperatures, provided with improper nutrition, and denied medical attention.”
While the recent videos and reports demonstrate the despicable manner calves and cows are treated, Kerr points out this is not an isolated incident in one CAFO but happens at dairy farms across the country. He cites other animal rights investigators have discovered similar types of behavior over the past years.28
Fair Oaks opened their doors to offset public resentment
Remarkably, McCloskey claims29 he was completely unaware of the abuse happening on a farm he opened to the public in 2004 with the intention to demonstrate to animal rights groups his farm was different from those born out of a culture prioritizing productivity over sustainability and animal care.
In an effort to change the narrative, he commented to Fortune Magazine, “We thought, hey, wait a second. We lived all our lives being proud of what we do, and we thought we should open our doors.” More than 50,000 people came to Fair Oaks Dairy in the first 12 months and 500,000 visited in 2015.30
McCloskey’s farm uses digesters to transform cow manure into methane gas, which in 2016 powered the electricity running the farm and the digesters. They purified it to 99% methane and began using it themselves in compressed natural gas engines in a fleet of 42 trucks that deliver their milk.
Once the biogas is siphoned off, water is pressed out leaving high nitrogen fertilizer paste the company uses on acreage where they grow the cows’ feed.31 At the time of the interview in 2016, Sue McCloskey talked about distilling the water, then filtering it through the wetlands and using it to brew beer. Mike McCloskey was quoted in Fortune:32
“When you drink that beer it’s going to be the water that the cows drank that made the milk that produced the gas that ran the trucks that created the fertilizer that grew the crops that created the protein that the cows ate and now is the water we use to make the beer.”
The farm also produced some organic milk, and to qualify as organic, the cows had to graze on pasture at least 120 days a year. This made it impossible to collect manure for the digesters. The organic cows also didn’t produce as much milk as those fed the genetically modified ingredients McCloskey prefers.
According to the piece in Fortune Magazine:33 “Still, Mike has reached a point where he feels there’s nothing he can’t explain or justify. ‘My doors are open, and you see everything I’m doing.'”
Coke seeks ‘premium’ label on milk
The partnership between Coca-Cola and Fair Oaks Dairy, which began in 2014, was initiated to roll out a premium milk product ultrafiltered to concentrate nutrients and separate fats and sugars.34 The company boasted the milk had 50% more protein, 30% more calcium and half the fat of whole milk.35
Sue McCloskey, a co-founder of Fair Oaks, told NPR’s Dan Charles36 she came up with the idea after being forced to filter water when she and her husband were running a dairy farm in New Mexico. They believed there was potential in separating milk into parts and then reassembling it into a reformulated, ultrafiltered, high-protein beverage that would be better than Mother Nature could make.37
Once they partnered with Coca-Cola, the idea went national, moved by the monstrous marketing muscle of Coca-Cola. After joining forces with Coca-Cola, they created Fairlife, under which the new line of milk-derived beverages would be marketed.38
McCloskey and his cousin Manuel Perez, also a veterinarian, have plans to build a dairy in Puerto Rico where he was raised. Born in Pittsburgh, his mother moved the family to Puerto Rico when he was 7 years old after her husband died. McCloskey plans to prove a dairy farm can be as efficient in the tropics as the one he built in Indiana.
McCloskey and Perez plan to plant a new kind of pasture with grass adapted to the tropics and a new genetic breed of cattle that “produces lots of milk but can also tolerate tropical heat and insect pests.”39
Benefits of raw milk products
There are many reasons to reconsider your consumption of pasteurized CAFO milk — animal rights abuses being just one of them. Pasteurized milk is also devoid of many nutrients that makes raw organic grass fed milk such a healthy food.
Unfortunately, raw milk has been wrongfully demonized as a health hazard, primarily by the conventional dairy industry. It is important to understand that for raw milk to be healthy and safe, it must come from healthy, organically raised cows that graze on pasture.
Drinking unpasteurized milk from cows raised in a CAFO may be lethal. This is due to the differences in the way the cows are raised and fed. Interestingly, high-quality raw organic milk takes advantage of the white blood cell count in raw milk to reduce your risk of food poisoning, something not found in pasteurized milk.
Raw milk also contains large quantities of beneficial bacteria, which you may benefit from during the winter by eating butter and cheese made from raw dairy. RealMilk.com can help you find a local producer of raw milk. There you will also find information about the legal status of raw dairy products in your state. For a further discussion, see “Livestock nutritionist defends raw milk safety,” in which Dr. William Winter and I discuss the safety and benefits of raw milk.