The Los Angeles-based Mercy for Animals has a knack for uncovering animal abuse, often in isolated places, that is the kind imposing enough stress and pain to also be a food safety concern and egregious enough to bring condemnation by world-renowned animal-welfare experts.
A week ago, the group shared its latest undercover report and video with the New Mexico Livestock Board. Ray E. Baca, executive director of that state law enforcement agency, told Food Safety News the “workers’ mistreatment of dairy cattle as seen in (the) online video” is now the subject of a Livestock Board investigation.
Baca said the board “takes allegations of animal cruelty very seriously.” Upon completion of the investigation, it will make a report to the Chavez County District Attorney’s Office, which will decide if anyone should be prosecuted.
The investigation involves the Winchester Dairy located near tiny Dexter, NM, about a half-hour south of Roswell, NM. It was there that the undercover video was taken, and Mercy documents the location in a separate video released to the media showing that its operative was present at the dairy as recently as August.
Using a hidden camera, Mercy’s operative recorded workers abusing the cows, even stabbing them with screwdrivers and dragging “downer” cows with a tractor in some of the most sickening video seen since the one showing a front-end loader shoving cows into the kill box at a Chico, CA, slaughterhouse emerged in 2010. (That undercover investigation, carried out by the Humane Society of the United States, resulted in the largest beef recall in history from the supplier to the National School Lunch Program.)
Since Mercy revealed the Winchester video, the dairy fired the workers who are shown abusing cows in the video and apparently temporarily shut down operations and relocated its cows. And yesterday, Mercy launched a public relations campaign regarding the disturbing incident.
The immediate targets of the campaign are the nation’s top pizza chains such as Domino’s, Pizza Hut and Papa John’s. That’s because they get much of their cheese from Denver-based Leprino Foods, the world’s largest producer of mozzarella. Mercy’s website now carries its slickly produced “Slice of Cruelty” campaign aimed at sharing the sickening abuse video with activists (and consumers).
Mercy’s PR experts know their social media strategy will usually bring a response from corporate targets in fairly short order. By early afternoon on Wednesday, Leprino Foods, noting that the company “cares deeply about the health and welfare of the animals on the farms that supply our milk,” announced that because of the animal abuse, it had terminated all shipments from Winchester Dairy. “Leprino Foods is not receiving any milk from this operation,” the company said.
At the same time, Leprino expressed confidence in New Mexico dairy farmers. “This incident does not reflect the daily care and comfort that New Mexico dairy farmers provide their cows,” the Leprino statement said. “The farm has taken quick and decisive action. Information about the incident was immediately shared with the proper New Mexico authorities, who are conducting an investigation so that the individuals responsible can be held accountable for their actions.”
Meanwhile, Tim McIntyre, vice president of communications for Domino’s, said that while no act of cruelty can ever be condoned, this was an isolated incident at one dairy farm out of 47,000 in the U.S. He said Mercy should be thanked for bringing the behavior of the workers to light, but he also noted they have been fired, the report is being thoroughly investigated, and the dairy has moved its herd to the care of other farms.
“What we do know is it is not an issue with our cheese supplier (Leprino’s),” McIntyre said.
Mercy last mixed it up with a state’s dairy industry early this year in Idaho where it unsuccessfully opposed a new agricultural protection law designed to prevent these sorts of undercover investigations. In its attempts to prevent passage of the law, Mercy released additional video from its 2012 undercover investigation of Bettencourt Dairy showing workers sexually molesting animals.
That upset the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, which said it showed that Mercy’s goals are more about hurting the dairy industry and its brands than protecting animals. Bettencourt fired the five workers involved in that incident, and they were subsequently convicted of animal abuse but apparently without the molestation video ever figuring in the criminal investigation.
Release of the sexual molestation video also backfired on Mercy as the Idaho Legislature joined Utah, Iowa and Missouri in passing what critics call “ag-gag” laws making it illegal to go undercover and shoot video of animal agricultural operations without permission from the owner. (North Dakota, Montana and Kansas have earlier versions of agricultural protection laws that were passed in 1990-91.)
Idaho’s new law is currently being challenged by other animal-rights groups and media organizations for its potential violations of the First and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
This time, however, Mercy’s PR professionals say their video evidence “was immediately turned over” to New Mexico officials. They also vetted the serious nature of the abuse by having it reviewed by arguably the world’s best-known animal-welfare expert, Colorado State University’s Dr. Temple Grandin.
She said that kicking and shocking the cows and holding them above the ground was “definitely abusive” and that the bellowing indicated the animals were in “severe distress.” Grandin also sees the blame going beyond the fired workers to “mismanagement” for failure to provide proper training and equipment.
Nathan Runkle, the president of Mercy, blamed Leprino Foods for allowing “a culture of cruelty to flourish in its cheese supply chain.”
Livestock abuse like that depicted on the video is a misdemeanor under New Mexico law and can become a felony with repeat offenses, or if the animal cruelty involves “intentionally or maliciously torturing, mutilating, or poisoning an animal or maliciously killing an animal.”
Only after the investigation is complete will the New Mexico Livestock Board or the Chavez County District Attorney’s Office have more to say, according to Baca.
Food Safety News