(CNN) -- The biggest dairy producer in Indiana is under investigation after an undercover animal welfare investigator released video of employees abusing calves.
Fair Oaks Farms is a popular agritourism destination and provides daily tours for people to "explore our dairy farms for a fun-filled look at the life of a cow," according to its website. It also belongs to the company that produces fairlife milk products distributed by the Coca-Cola Company.
However, an Animal Recovery Mission (ARM) investigator who gained employment working with calves at Fair Oaks Farms captured graphic footage that visitors probably don't glimpse on their tours.
ARM's video depicts employees kicking, pushing and slamming to the ground newborn calves that did not nurse from the artificial rubber nipple during the feeding process.
Calves were deprived of adequate nutrition, and the video shows employees stabbing and hitting calves with steel rebars and branding irons, ARM said. In addition, employees would sit on the calves, which was often too much weight for the animals to bear.
Transportation of newborn calves was violent, ARM said. In the video, employees are seen throwing calves into the trailer or forcefully pushing them in.
Law enforcement is investigating the allegations
Newton County Sheriff's Office launched an independent investigation into allegations of animal cruelty. It said it has requested the names of the employees in the video and is looking for people who witnessed the animal cruelty and failed to report it.
"We acknowledge the need for humane treatment of animals and the need to hold individuals that have gone beyond an acceptable farm management practice accountable for their actions," Sheriff Thomas VanVleet said in a statement.
Newton County Prosecutor Jeff Drinski said he will most likely file charges against the perpetrators on Monday once the former employees are located.
Farm founder: Employees responsible for abuse were fired
Fair Oaks Farms founder Mike McCloskey said five employees were responsible for committing multiple instances of animal cruelty. Four were Fair Oaks employees, and they have all been terminated, McCloskey said.
"I am disgusted by and take full responsibility for the actions seen in the footage, as it goes against everything that we stand for in regards to responsible cow care and comfort," McCloskey wrote in a Facebook post. "The employees featured in the video exercised a complete and total disregard for the documented training that all employees go through to ensure the comfort, safety and well-being of our animals."
Fair Oaks Farms said in April that it had commissioned an independent auditor to review its animal welfare practices and the audit had come back favorably.
In a statement, fairlife has suspended milk deliveries from the dairy identified in the video.
"The dairy identified in the video represents less than 5 percent of fairlife's total milk supply. Approximately 30 dairies support fairlife; therefore, we are visiting all supplying dairies in person and conducting independent 3rd party audits within the next 30 days to verify all animal husbandry practices at the farms, including all training, management and auditing practices," fairlife said.
"At The Coca-Cola Company, we take animal welfare very seriously. We expect our suppliers to operate with the highest degree of integrity and comply with all laws, including animal welfare laws," Coca-Cola said in a statement. "We have been in contact with fairlife about this situation and have full confidence in their management team to urgently address this issue with Fair Oaks Farms, which is a third-party supplier to fairlife."
Retailers drop fairlife
Several supermarket chains are pulling fairlife products from its shelves, including Jewel-Osco, Family Express and Tony's Fresh Market.
"At Jewel-Osco we strive to maintain high animal welfare standards across all areas of our business, and work in partnership with our vendors to ensure those standards are upheld," said a spokeswoman for the company, which has 187 stores throughout the Chicago area, Indiana and Iowa.
Family Express, which operates convenience stores throughout Northwest and North Central Indiana, discontinued all fairlife products and picked up Organic Valley as its new milk products supplier.
While most of the public outrage has focused on the allegations of animal cruelty, ARM also wrote in its report that they suspect marijuana plants are being grown on Fair Oaks Farm property. Additionally, ARM alleged that employees smoke and sell marijuana and cocaine while working.
McCloskey denied that drugs are grown and sold at Fair Oaks Farms.
"The plants featured in the video are an invasive perennial species that is rampant on farms all over the Midwest," McCloskey said. The owner did acknowledge that there has been employee drug use on the properties but it was addressed by law enforcement.
More than 600,000 visitors flock to Fair Oaks Farms, located about 75 miles south of Chicago, every year. The farm has 36,000 cows and is a popular agritourism destination, with a museum, restaurant gift shop and hotel surrounding it.
Read the founder's full statement below
This morning I was made aware of an animal abuse video that the group Animal Recovery Mission (ARM) produced and has released to the public and the press. Most of the footage for this video was captured on one of the dairies that belongs to Fair Oaks Farms. While we were made aware a couple months ago of the fact that ARM had gone undercover at Fair Oaks Farms, and had proactively made a statement (link), we had no idea what kind of footage had been captured or what – if any – abuse had occurred.
It is with great disappointment to find, after closely reviewing the released ARM video, that there were five individuals committing multiple instances of animal cruelty and despicable judgement. Of the five, four were our employees and one was a 3rd party truck driver who was picking up calves. Of the four who were our employees, three had already been terminated prior to us being made aware months ago of the undercover ARM operation, as they were identified by their co-workers as being abusive of our animals and reported to management. So, in this instance our policy of cow care training - “see something, say something” - worked. After reviewing the video frame-by-frame, those three employees are responsible for the overwhelming majority of offenses seen in this video.
Unfortunately, the fourth employee’s animal abuse was not caught at that same time. Although he underwent another training session in animal care when we discovered there was an undercover ARM operation on our farm, after viewing the extent of his animal abuse, he is being terminated today.
As to the individual who worked for the transportation company, today, we will notify the company that he works for and he will not be allowed on our farms again. It is our position that any companies that come in contact with transportation of our animals, should be well-versed in and adhere to our industry’s animal welfare practices which can be found in FARM (nationaldairyfarm.com).
Months ago, when I first learned of the undercover activity, I requested a 3rd party review and we went through a re-training process throughout the dairies. While the review came back favorable, I am not letting my guard down and will institute more thorough monitoring and training so that this abuse can never happen again. This video and any future videos will be immediately handed over to the authorities for review and potential prosecution.
Regardless, I am disgusted by and take full responsibility for the actions seen in the footage, as it goes against everything that we stand for in regards to responsible cow care and comfort. The employees featured in the video exercised a complete and total disregard for the documented training that all employees go through to ensure the comfort, safety and well-being of our animals.
It is a shock and an eye-opener for us to discover that under our watch, we had employees who showed disregard for our animals, our processes and for the rule of law. This ARM video shines a light on an area that – despite our thorough training, employee onboarding procedures and overall commitment to animal welfare – needs improvement. However, as I have stated before, the fact that ARM takes months before notifying owners or authorities regarding on-going animal abuse is concerning. I have personally reached out to ARM’s founder, Richard Couto, to discuss a more symbiotic relationship but he has yet to reach back. A full investigation of all aspects of the video is underway, during and after which disciplinary action will be taken, including termination and criminal prosecution, of any and all employees and managers who have violated either our animal care practices or the law or both.
The statement that we grow and sell drugs on our farms is false. The plants featured in the video are an invasive perennial species that is rampant on farms all over the midwest. With that said, I am disappointed to learn of potential drug use on our properties. Months ago, the individual seen smoking by the barn and doing drugs in a truck was turned in by his co-workers to one of our managers. That manager notified local law enforcement about the drug use and, accordingly, a police report is on file.
It is with a heavy heart that I prepare this statement today. As a veterinarian whose life and work is dedicated to the care, comfort and safety of all animals, this has affected me deeply. I am disappointed for not being aware of this kind of awful treatment occurring and I take full responsibility for what has happened. I also take full responsibility to correct and ensure that every employee understands, embraces and practices the core values on which our organization stands.
I am and will continue to be deeply involved in the resolution of this matter, down to every one of our employees, so that I can guarantee that these actions never again occur on any of our farms.