- Susan Salisbury Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
In the wake of accusations of animal abuse at two Okeechobee dairy farms, the state’s largest milk cooperative will begin mandatory training of farm owners and operators and take other proactive steps to ensure that animals are treated humanely.
The announcement on Monday came as Okeechobee County police again voiced frustration with the activist group that uncovered the alleged abuse. The Okeechobee County Sheriff ’s office said the delay in giving the video to authorities has made it difficult to serve arrest warrants on three other individuals believed to have committed abuse.
And the group that uncovered the purported abuse, Animal Recovery Mission, said it questioned whether the trade group’s emphasis on training and best practices will be followed by workers.
Jim Sleper, CEO of Southeast Milk Inc. whose membership includes the two Okeechobee County dairies accused of mistreatment of dairy cows, said Monday in Zolfo Springs that the cooperative has zero tolerance for animal abuse.
“When I visited those farms and saw the conditions, it was totally different from what I saw and experienced in those videos. I’m totally confused,” Sleper said Monday. “Why would any of our members truly want some incident like that occurring on their farm? It doesn’t make economic sense. It doesn’t make any moral sense.”
Not good enough, said ARM ‘s founder lead investigator Richard “Kudo” Couto. “Any type of reform is a positive. Do I think that it is a song-and-dance by the dairy industry? I certainly do,” Couto said.
Earlier this month, Animal Recovery Mission, a Miami Beach-based animal cruelty investigative organization released videos taken at Larson Dairy and Burnham Dairy showing cows showing cows being kicked in the head, being beaten with metal rods and using other force the dairy industry says is unacceptable and not typical.
When the videos were released, Publix Super Markets immediately suspended shipments from Larson Dairy on Nov. 9 and from Burnham Dairy on Nov. 13. Publix spokeswoman Nicole Krauss said Monday the ban remains in effect.
On Nov. 17, the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office announced the arrest of Helias Cruz, a former Larson Dairy employee on an animal cruelty charge. Cruz, 49, was released on a $2,500 bond. Arrest warrants were issued for three other suspects who previously worked at Larson Dairy.
On Monday, Sheriff Noel Stephen said, “As I’ve said before, the whereabouts of the other three suspects are unknown due to a lack of prompt reporting to law enforcement. I truly believe that the delay in reporting and lack of cooperation significantly hindered the investigation and has allowed these suspects to avoid prosecution.”
The sheriff’s office has said it never received any allegations about Burnham dairy. However, complaints about Burnham were reported and investigated by the Okeechobee County Health Department, the Florida Department of Agriculture and the Florida Department of Enviornmental Protection. Those agencies reported no major violations.
Meanwhile, Southeast Milk, with about 280 member dairies in Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama, said it is doing what it can to make sure the type of abuse seen on the videos doesn’t happen again. It plans to hold four comprehensive remedial training sessions for farm owners and operators the week of Dec. 11.
Sleper said SMI is working with all its member farms to introduce or strengthen video surveillance to help ensure animals are being treated respectfully and humanely 24-hours a day at all locations.
In addition, Sleper said SMI is working with the National Dairy Farmers Assuring Responsible Management Program, or FARM, to accelerate the implementation of the newest version of its program, Version 3.0, at every SMI member farm in the next six months. Version 3.0 requires enhanced worker training, stricter requirements for working relationships with veterinarians and stronger corrective action plan requirements for framers that are not meeting guidelines and standards.
The two farms have been placed on probationary status, pending the competition of any corrective actions deemed necessary by a third party auditor and the FARM program.
ARM’s Couto said that the dairy industry wants consumers to think all is well with its product in the face of increasing competition from non-dairy beverages such as almond milk, coconut milk and soy milk.
“There are a lot of alternative products out there now that people could go to,” Couto said. “They want people to be clear-headed when they eat their cheese and drink their milk, and think that cows are content, and there are no issues, which is not the reality of the industry.”
Couto said when his investigator worked undercover at Larson Dairy, the worker signed documents stating he would not harm animals, yet the videos indicate the rules were not being followed.
“At Larson Dairy they have a lot of protocols in place for no cruelty in the workplace, saying we would not torture animals, but is anyone following that at Larson Dairy? No,” Couto said.
Couto said Sleper failed to address abuse of calves and the way they are taken from their mothers and kept in tiny pens in open fields with little or no protection from rain and sun.
“Many are kept in flood areas,” Couto said. “They are in standing water and cannot lay down because they are in four inches of water. The whole dairy calf industry in our state has to be revamped.”
Couto said he expects to meet with the Okeechobee County State Attorney’s Office later this week to discuss his group’s findings.
While dairy industry officials have asserted that some of the poor conditions shown on the videos, such as piles of dead cows and calves at Burnham and calves in muddy enclosures, were due to post-Hurricane Irma issues, Couto disputed that.
“Ninety-five percent of the videos we went public with, are before and well after Irma,” Couto said. “The abuse at Burnham had nothing to do with hurricane impact.”