If the goal of the Animal Recovery Mission in releasing videos in June that showed Fair Oaks Farms workers abusing calves was to make life difficult for the farm, it succeeded in the short term. Unverified reports indicate tourism was off at Fair Oaks Farms in Newton County, Ind., last summer, although it later rebounded. Anecdotal evidence indicates some local stores pulled Fairlife milk initially, only to restock it later.
Fair Oaks Farms owner Mike McCloskey responded swiftly with a video accepting responsibility and outlining how the farm would make sure this abuse never happened again. Local and statewide news reports questioned why the animal rights group waited months before releasing the abuse video, reportedly obtained by an employee planted on the farm.
While Fair Oaks Farms did an admirable job responding via social media, perhaps there’s a lesson here. When WIBC Radio ran stories about important events of 2019, reporters highlighted the Fair Oaks Farms incident. However, since Fair Oaks Farms apparently declined interview requests, including from Indiana Prairie Farmer, the WIBC story came off leaving the animal rights people looking successful. There were no actual press interviews telling Fair Oaks Farms’ side of the story.
If the goal of the Animal Recovery Mission was to scare off the Coca-Cola Co., the beverage giant that held a minority share in Fairlife and helped distribute Fairlife milk, it failed miserably. Coca-Cola responded immediately, noting it would do its own animal rights monitoring, and that milk from Fair Oaks Farms itself wouldn’t be used for Fairlife until investigations were complete. What the company didn’t do was cave to pressure.
Instead, on Jan. 3, Coca-Cola acquired the remaining stock of Fairlife LLC from its joint venture partner, Select Milk Producers, giving Coca-Cola 100% ownership of the company. It further announced that Fairlife, Chicago, Ill., would continue operating as Fairlife under the Coca-Cola umbrella.
Coca-Cola posted an interview with Jim Denkins, president of Coca-Cola North America, and Fairlife CEO Tim Doelman, on its website. In response to a question about last summer’s incident, Doelman said, in part, “We’re working with our supplying farmers across the U.S. to outline more detailed animal welfare policies and protocols for any farm supplying Fairlife.” He later added, “Our commitment to animal welfare is a key part of our pledge to provide consumers with great-tasting, highly nutritious and safe products they can feel good about.”
For his part, Denkins noted, “Everyone at Coca-Cola was saddened and heartbroken to hear of the incident last summer. That’s why it was important to our team that we be highly involved, which included having a third party to conduct our own independent audit of Fairlife’s supplying farms, in addition to those conducted by Fairlife.
“We look forward to continuing to work with Fairlife to ensure that our animal care standards are ones that farmers, partners, employees, consumers and the industry at large can be proud of — and that we can continue to raise the bar for the industry.”
That’s not companies backing away — it is companies learning from an incident and doing things even better in the future.
Agriculture owes a debt of gratitude to those individuals who reacted positively to what others intended to be a purely negative situation. Agriculture and U.S. consumers are better for it.
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