After the video: Dairy association tries to counter abuse allegations

8:05 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017 Local
Okeechobee County Sheriff Noel Stephen speaks to reporters as public information officer Michele Bell looks on during a press conference at the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office in Okeechobee, Fla., on Thursday. On December 13, three workers from the McArthur Dairy video were arrested, Sheriff Stephen said. (Andres Leiva / The Palm Beach Post)

Florida’s dairy industry has been in an unwanted spotlight since the Nov. 9 release of surveillance videos showing workers kicking cows at Larson Dairy in Okeechobee County.

The image portrayed is far from that of cows grazing in idyllic pastures and has the potential to harm both milk sales and economic stability of the industry.

RELATED: Three Okeechobee dairy workers arrested in animal abuse investigation

Since then, the way the animals are treated at three other Okeechobee dairies has been thrust into the public eye with heart-wrenching scenes of animals being dragged, stabbed with knives attached to PVC pipe “spears” and burned with torches near their heads.

It’s been a challenging time for Jim Sleper, CEO of Southeast Milk, based in Belleview. Southeast Milk is the cooperative that collects milk from dairies — including those in question — and processes and distributes most of the milk produced in Florida.

“The whole animal care video scenario that we are in…we have found some weaknesses and one of those weaknesses was that while the managers and owners understand stockmanship — how to handle animals, it wasn’t being transferred all the way through to all the workers,” Sleper said Friday.

“We need to do a better job, especially with the consumers of Florida and with our customers, of gaining their trust back that milk comes from animals that are treated in a humane fashion,” Sleper said.

While the dairies didn’t publicly address the allegations, after each video’s release, Sleper issued statements stressing that the cooperative has a “zero-tolerance policy for animal abuse.”

Following the release of the Larson Dairy videos, more videos shot by Animal Recovery Mission, an animal cruelty investigative group based in Miami Beach, showing similar treatment of cows and calves at Burnham and McArthur Dairies have been publicly released.

Okeechobee County Sheriff Noel Stephen said this week that investigations at the three dairies, and at a fourth operation, Davie Dairy, are ongoing. The animal advocates provided information obtained by undercover workers at Davie Dairy to the sheriff, but did not release that footage to the public.

Instead of hiding behind closed doors, Sleper organized mandatory training sessions for all the cooperative’s members. Those were completed Friday in Okeechobee, where about 130 dairy farm managers and owners attended. Including sessions in Louisiana, Georgia and North Florida, roughly 270 dairymen attended the free all-day training provided by Southeast milk.

“We decided to be proactive,” Sleper said Friday. “We are trying to move forward.”

Experts from all over the country including the University of Florida, the National Milk Producers Federation and animal health professionals led the training focused on cow comfort, calf care, euthanasia, pain management, emergency preparedness and hiring. Farmers asked a lot of questions and were receptive and eager to attend, Sleper said.

Sleper said the dairy owners and managers were told to instruct workers one-on-one and properly train them. Managers need to do more than simply hand workers a piece of paper about humane animal treatment. They must make sure they understand it.

The video shot at McArthur Dairy from August through October and released Thursday was found to be especially disturbing by some viewers. A Walmart spokeswoman called it “hard to watch.”

McArthur brand milk is normally sold at Walmart as well as Publix Super Markets, Target and other stores. Southeast Milk is now segregating the milk from McArthur, Larson, Burnham and Davie so that retailers who don’t want it can avoid it.

The McArthur video shows cows being burned with blow torches on their udders, but in some cases, workers brandished the torches near the cows’ heads.

“Udder flaming” is a dairy industry practice that involves passing a large flame beneath dairy cows to burn off the hair from their udders, as way to sanitize the udders, but it must be done correctly to avoid burning the cow’s skin, according to the Oregon State University Extension Service.

A University of Florida industry guide on how to clean cows’ udders doesn’t mention the method, but recommends washing udders and using sanitizing solutions.

Sleper said he couldn’t comment on the practice, but he did call the McArthur video “appalling.

“SMI does not approve of any animal abuse,” Sleper said.

Sleper said the training sessions were designed to ensure that dairy farmers and their employees are meeting acceptable standards in animal care.

Southeast Milk is also assisting farms in obtaining and improving video surveillance so managers can more easily oversee the operations.

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