CHICAGO - Chicago-based Fairlife, under fire after the release of a video showing animals being mistreated at one of its supplying dairy farms, is being sued for fraud for promoting the "extraordinary care and comfort" of its cows on its milk labels.
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Chicago federal court by a California man who was a consumer of Fairlife milk, seeks class-action status. It names Fairlife as well as Mike and Sue McCloskey, owners of Fair Oaks Farms in northwest Indiana where the alleged abuse took place, as defendants.
The suit comes as Animal Recovery Mission, an animal welfare nonprofit based in Miami, continues to release more videos from its undercover investigation of Fair Oaks Farms, which runs a popular agritourism business that draws families and school groups. On Wednesday the animal welfare group released a new video showing cows struggling to stand while being milked and contrasts it to the way the milking process is portrayed to visitors on the farm's Dairy Adventure tour.
In his suit, Alain Michael, of Thousand Oaks, Calif., alleges he paid a premium for Fairlife milk because of the "promise" listed on the labels, with the signatures of the McCloskeys, stating that its supplying farmers provide "extraordinary animal care" and "extraordinary care and comfort for our cows."
"But Fairlife's and its founders' promise is a sham," the lawsuit alleges, and describes footage released last week by Animal Recovery Mission allegedly showing some workers at Fair Oaks Farms abusing calves.
"As a matter of routine and practice, Fairlife's cows are tortured, kicked, stomped on, body slammed, stabbed with steel rebar, thrown off the side of trucks, dragged through the dirt by their ears, and left to die in over 100-degree heat," the lawsuit alleges. "Calves that do not survive the torture are dumped in mass graves. To add insult to injury, the abuse is rampant even at Fairlife's 'flagship farm in Indiana' that customers are urged to visit on the Products' labels."
The suit claims Fairlife and McCloskeys engaged in fraud and unjust enrichment and violated numerous state consumer protection laws. It seeks to include anyone who purchased Fairlife milk nationwide in a class.
Fairlife is aware of the lawsuit and is reviewing it, CEO Mike St. John said in a statement.
"Fairlife is committed to the humane and compassionate care of animals," St. John said. "As we shared last week, we are taking immediate actions to ensure our high standards of animal welfare are being executed at each of our supplying farms."
Fair Oaks Farms and the McCloskeys did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the lawsuit or the newly released video. Last week Mike McCloskey blamed the abuse on a few bad workers and announced numerous measures to prevent such conduct from occurring again.
Last week's video, shot by an Animal Recovery Mission investigator who posed as a calf care employee at Fair Oaks from August to November of last year, prompted backlash against the farm and its flagship product. About a dozen retailers have pulled Fairlife from their shelves, including Jewel-Osco, Tony's Fresh Market and Pete's Fresh Market. Animal rights activists organized protests in several cities, including outside Fairlife's West Loop headquarters, where they chanted for the company to be shut down. More than 50 people work at Fairlife's Chicago office.
The Newton County Sheriff's Office on Monday announced charges against three workers identified in the video as participating in the abuse. One suspect, Edgar Gardozo-Vasquez, 36, of Brook, Ind., has been arrested and is being held at the Newton County Jail. U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement has placed a hold on Gardozo-Vasquez, the sheriff's office said. The other two men had not been located or arrested. The office said its investigation was continuing.
Newton County Prosecutor Jeff Drinski, in an emailed response to questions, said he has filed both misdemeanor and felony charges of beating a vertebrae animal. The felony carries a sentence of 6 months to 2.5 years incarceration and up to a $10,000 fine, while the misdemeanor is punishable by up to 1 year of incarceration and a $5,000 fine.
The founder of Animal Recovery Mission, Richard Couto, said that charging low-level workers falls short and that authorities should prosecute the owners of the farm, where he said abuse is widespread and routine and not the fault of a few bad apples.
But Drinski said Fair Oaks Farms is not the subject of the investigation.
There have been allegations that the undercover employee working for the animal rights group encouraged the mistreatment, Drinski said. "Once the investigation has been completed, I will make the decision as to his criminal culpability along with any other individuals that are involved," he said.
At a press conference Wednesday in Chicago, Couto emphasized that those suggestions are false.
"I want to be very clear: Our worker took no part in any type of abuse in any of the locations," said Couto, who was clad in military fatigue pants. "None of the workers were hired or staged by Animal Recovery Mission."
Couto targeted Fair Oaks Farms after attending its Dairy Adventure tour, which he said presents a rosy image of how cows are treated that doesn't reflect the behind-the-scenes reality. Investigators applied for jobs at 12 different dairies under the Fair Oaks Farm umbrella and shot undercover video at the ones where they were hired, he said.
The new video released Wednesday was shot by an ARM investigator posing as an employee at Fair Oaks' rotary milking system from February to April of this year. It shows workers punching and pushing adult cows with their feet as they struggle to get them into the milking carousel, and some cows falling and being pinned as the system rotates. According to the animal welfare group, frustrated workers would bend and break cows' tailbones when they wouldn't cooperate.
Some cows appear to still have afterbirth hanging from their bodies as they are milked and others are seen with eyes that appear infected. It also shows cows crowded into tight pens and piles of dead cows and calves in the dirt. According to ARM, the carousel is equipped with surveillance cameras that are overseen by management.
The video ends by encouraging viewers to "go dairy-free today."
"This abuse is systematic, not just at Fair Oaks Farms, but throughout the Fairlife family all over the country and the entire dairy industry throughout the world," said Couto, whose group has also conducted undercover dairy operations in Florida. He declined to say how many investigators infiltrated Fair Oaks and if there are any more videos forthcoming.
The sheriffs office in Jasper County, which neighbors Newton County, said it received the video and report Wednesday and will review it.
Fairlife said last week that it was "devastated" by the footage of the calves being mistreated and immediately suspended deliveries from Fair Oaks Farms. It said it is auditing all 30 of its supplying farms in the next 30 days and will require that all employees be recertified in animal welfare training annually. It also said it would increase the number of unannounced animal welfare audits at its supplying dairies from one to 24 per year. Fair Oaks, the company added, represents just 5% of its milk supply.
Fairlife was launched in 2012 as a partnership between Coca-Cola, which distributes it, and the McCloskeys' Select Milk Producers, a co-op of dairy farms that includes Fair Oaks. The product is a form of "ultrafiltered" milk that is lactose-free and has more protein and calcium and less sugar than traditional milk.
Coca-Cola released a statement saying that the company is conducting its own investigation and taking action with Fairlife to "make this right."
Mike McCloskey, a veterinarian-turned-farmer, has posted several videos to the Fair Oaks Farms website and Facebook page expressing sadness about the treatment of calves depicted in the undercover footage and taking responsibility. He said he had identified five people who engaged in the abuse, four of them employees who have been fired and one a third-party truck driver who would not be allowed back on the premises.
McCloskey, whose farm promotes its sustainability and animal welfare practices, vowed to install security cameras anywhere on the property animals interact with people and showcase the live feed as an exhibit visitors can view during tours of the property. He also said he had arranged for an animal welfare group to conduct frequent, unannounced audits of the farm and plans to hire an employee dedicated to monitoring and educating employees on proper treatment of the animals daily.
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