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An animal abuse video destroys Fair Oaks Farms' charming facade

Indiana-based Fair Oaks Farms is on the defensive after an undercover video appeared to show the abuse of animals at the company's dairy farm.

Fair Oaks Farms marketed itself as the epitome of a wholesome dairy. It sold ultrafiltered cow’s milk and hosted school field trips, promoting an Instagram-friendly vision of modern farming and “caring for our animals.”

The company is now on the defensive and losing customers after a graphic undercover video appeared to show hideous abuses of calves at Fair Oaks’ flagship dairy farm in Indiana.


A four-minute video depicts young and newborn calves being stabbed, kicked and stomped, some left with obvious injuries. The animals were beaten with steel rods and burned with branding irons. The video by Animal Recovery Mission prompted Jewel-Osco, the largest grocery chain in the Chicago area, and others to announce they would drop the dairy’s products, sold under the Fairlife name. Thousands of consumers expressed their outrage over the abuse on social media.

Michael McCloskey, a veterinarian and owner of the operation, about 75 miles outside Chicago, said in a statement that he was "disappointed for not being aware of this kind of awful treatment occurring, and I take full responsibility for what has happened.” Fairlife was formed in 2012 as a partnership between McCloskey’s co-op of dairy farmers and Coca-Cola, which acts as distributor.


The video suggests there was ill treatment not only by several alleged offenders shown in the video but also in broader operations: barns kept too hot, for example. The company also claimed it did not target male calves, of little value to a dairy farm, to become veal, which even many meat-eaters avoid because of the extent to which the animals are confined. Yet the video showed calves being trucked off to a veal supplier. McCloskey said he was unaware of this and “our bull calves will no longer go to veal.”

The gratuitous cruelty shown in the video would be appalling for any reputable agribusiness to allow. The bucolic marketing of Fair Oaks Farms represents a double betrayal.

Parents and schools took young children to Fair Oaks to learn about farming and admire the cute cows. Tours allowed visitors a tightly controlled look at milking and birthing, creating a cheerful veneer of transparency. Fair Oaks promised a “fun-filled look at the life of a cow.” Drivers grateful for a stop along the highway bought sandwiches and ice cream at the “Cowfé” and paid homage to Midwest tradition. At Chicago-area supermarkets, consumers paid extra for the Fairlife name. Its milk sold for twice the price of a conventional gallon.

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Fair Oaks Farms’ reputation is now in ruins. McCloskey apologized in a video message for the mistreatment of animals. He said several employees were fired for violating company policy and he promised big changes, including the installation of video surveillance cameras and unscheduled visits by outside inspectors.

Perhaps Fair Oaks can correct its issues and regain trust, but it’s got a lot of work to do. Brands that peddle a specific, feel-good story to consumers have a special obligation to fulfill those promises. Or they’ll face the consequences of alienating their customers.