Anya Marchenko
Published on
April 20, 2021

Happy dairy companies are lying to you

New investigation into Land O'Lakes shows routine violations of own animal welfare standards
Actress and activist Alexandra Paul and I connected to talk about her investigation into Land O’Lakes

One of the things that pisses me off the most about factory farming corporations is that, in some sense, they survive because of a lie. The lie is told with charlatan’s skill across idyllic packaging with cute barns, websites filled with images of clean and nourished cows, and annual reports with front-and-center “Sustainability” pledges.

Through the diligent work of activists, the public has learned more and more about what really goes on inside factory farms. Even a growing number of carnists have a vague sense that factory farms are cruel, and that meat producers who claim otherwise are as full of crap as the meat they sell.

But what about dairy? Dairy feels less bad. There’s no immediate killing, and cows would be making milk anyway. Not so bad, right? One of the biggest producers of butter and cheese wants you to think so. But the reality, according to a new investigation, is far from what’s advertised.

Land O’Lakes says their butter is ethically made

Land O’Lakes is a dairy cooperative that is one of the nations largest producers of butter and cheese, with $14 billion in net sales. And they paint a rosy picture of the way they treat their dairy cows.

Here is a still from a Land O’Lakes commercial titled “From Our Dairies to Your Dinner,” implying their dairy cows live on cute little tree lined pastures:

Adorable! Almost like milk comes from these little plastic figures.

Here is another still from a Land O’Lakes commercial called “Our Land.” This one has an attractive farmer working in front of some incredibly clean, fat cows in a pristine barn:

If only the real cows were this clean & happy

But more than just commercials, Land O’Lakes has actually promised that their farmers are committed to a set of welfare and care standards called FARM (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management). Land O’Lakes doesn’t directly own cows, but instead operates from a cooperative model, with over 1,600 dairy producers as members. Their members website states that “participation in the FARM program is a mandatory condition of Land O’Lakes, Inc. dairy membership” and that “maintaining the highest level of animal care and driving continuous improvement are increasingly important to our brand.” Note the word increasingly.

A new, 14-farm investigation reveals Land O’Lakes violates its own standards

Alexandra Paul, an actress, health coach, and activist with animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) has just released an investigation into Land O’Lakes.

Alexandra is pretty incredible — she’s most famous for starring in the hit show Baywatch (!), and has many impressive activist and athletic achievements besides. She’s been jailed many, many times for protesting for animal welfare, walked across America for over five weeks for nuclear disarmament, was honored by the ACLU of Southern California as an Activist of the Year in 2005, completed an Ironman, has a weekly podcast, a Ted talk, and the list goes on.

Most recently, she traveled to 14 farms in California and Wisconsin to document the conditions of dairy farms. “With the help of more than 20 grassroots investigators, we now have footage proving that this company routinely violates its own welfare standards, as well as animal cruelty laws,” she writes.

To get a sense of how much Land O’Lakes’ promises differ from the reality, I’ve included some stills from the 2 minute video of the investigation, which overlays quotes from their welfare manual over actual footage of dairy cows. But you should also just go watch it on your own.

Warning: The below stills are not for the faint of heart.

What appears to be a bulldozer dumping 3-4 baby calves onto the snow after taking them from their moms and transporting them to separate hutches.
One calf was found spraying bright green diarrhea onto itself, its tail and enclosure. Paul reported that she sent the footage to a veterinarian to ask what drugs the calf had been given. The veterinarian was not able to say what drugs would’ve caused this color, but that it was obvious the calf was sick.
In California, Paul reports that calves are held in hutches, small wooden enclosures that have slats in the floor so that feces and urine can fall out. This calf appears to be laying on wooden planks covered by green slime, possibly diarrhea. I’m not sure what happened to this baby’s backside and tail.
Another cow with what looks like green excrement and dirt.

This is about lies

The public wants to believe that they eat meat and dairy raised ethically. And so corporations tell the ‘we’re ethical’ story through pretty commercials and packaging. But the price of meat and dairy is too low to sustain the actual cost of raising those animals to ethical, and often food safety, standards. Paul summarizes the Catch-22 well:

Consumers now expect humane dairy and meat at a cheap price because companies like Land O'Lakes have lied that they can provide that. But companies can't financially be kind to animals on factory farms, and factory farms are the only way you're going to get cheap meat. So it's a big fat lie, this cheap, “humane” meat. It is an oxymoron.

So who bears the price? The animals who suffer, the factory workers who endure more workplace injuries, the consumers who get sick or are just misled by companies.

But the cycle continues, because in a weird way, it’s mutually beneficial for companies and consumers. After all, it’s easier to believe the marketing than to face the fact that you were duped, and what’s worse, that maybe you allowed yourself to be. Which puts the entire industry in a pickle, Paul says:

Companies like Land O’Lakes have cornered themselves because they've said ’See, we have happy cows’ and consumers just said, ‘Yay’ and believed them. Unfortunately, what has happened is that consumers will only buy that happy cow stuff if it's also cheap, because they think they have been promised they can get both. But they can't, it's really not possible. So that has put Land O’Lakes into a corner and now they have to lie to keep their customers happy.  

So the lie is also a profitable lie. That makes investigations like Paul’s even more important, as it means industry has little incentive to become more transparent on their own.

Paul says she approached investigating Land O’Lakes with a practical eye: “[This investigation] is just about lying to me. I didn't want to go into, ‘this is cruel,’ because it's obvious that it's cruel.”

People don't like to be taken advantage of. And if they see that Land O’Lakes is lying to them — nobody likes to be lied to — they will be more apt to dislike the dairy industry and dislike buying their products. Unfortunately, it is less because they care about those calves and cows, but because they don't want to be suckers. But whatever the reason, the outcome is less business for Big Dairy.

What should we do?

I asked Paul what advice she has for people who want to buy more ethical dairy. But she believes that ethical dairy is an oxymoron, and that no meat or dairy industry can be kind to animals. This is because no matter the farm, Paul explains, dairy production involves separating mothers from their calfs, forcibly inseminating cows, and then killing them after about five years when they’re no longer profitable.

Instead of focusing on finding ethical dairy, Paul suggests flipping the question on its head by focusing on plant-based alternatives.

“People are afraid that if they eliminate animal products from their diet, they're going to make their diets smaller,” she says. “But if you think about it, in the dairy case, there's only two kinds of animal milk: goat milk and cow milk. But there are 10 kinds of non-animal milk: hemp, cashew, almond, soy, rice, and various grains and nuts.”

The same goes for meat. The variety of nuts, legumes, vegetables, beans far surpasses the variety of standard animal proteins (chicken, beef) in American diets.

This is a good point, and I think it’s valuable to flip the common narrative that eating animals is The Best1, and other ways of eating must justify themselves. So often, our society places the defensive burden on the people trying to do things better, rather than on the people participating in a dominant, exploitative ideology.

But I also admit this advice is not very satisfying. I eat a mostly vegan diet, but I would consider eating milk and yoghurt if I could find a producer that I knew treated cows well. But what does that even mean? I’ve thought about this question so much that there is now a running joke in my apartment about a podcast called “Cow’s You Doin’?”, where we would interview cows to see how happy they are before buying their products. No such cows have yet been interviewed, so vegan I stay.

In short, what I’ve learned is that the temptation to outsource hard ethical decisions is strong. In a sense, we all keep hoping someone else — someone like Alexandra Paul, or an influencer, or our religious faith, or this newsletter — will solve our ethical quandaries. Society creates ethical systems that tell us how to live (and what to eat) so that we don’t have to wrestle with these questions as individuals. So what happens when society gets it wrong? We go at it alone, we find fellow discontents and ask advice, and we dream of interviewing cows.

This article was first published on Giving to Strangers on April 12, 2021.

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