ARM concludes investigation of dairies

OKEECHOBEE — Animal Recovery Mission (ARM) announced Wednesday that they have concluded their investigations into the dairy industry in Okeechobee County, according to ARM founder Richard Couto.

Earlier this year, ARM sent undercover agents into four Okeechobee dairies where some obtained jobs as dairy workers. The undercover agents were reportedly at the dairies in the August-October time frame. ARM has not released the exact dates.

ARM has posted videos from three dairies online in November and December. A video alleging abuse at a fourth dairy, Davie Dairy, was posted online on Dec. 20.

In the video, ARM urges viewers to adopt a plant-based diet. In a press conference broadcast live online on Dec. 20, Mr. Couto stated, “Operation Florida Ag was to open the eyes of consumers. It was to show consumers where their food is actually coming from.”

Mr. Couto said Davie Dairy was not targeted. “There were no reports of abuse. Nothing came into our office,” he said.

He said the ARM agents were hired at the end of July and worked until the beginning of October.

Since the undercover agents were hired as maintenance workers, he said, it was difficult for them to get into the milking parlor and birthing areas. Much of the work assigned to the undercover agents was things like collecting hay and repairing fences, he said.

Southeast Milk, Inc.

He claimed the agents observed Davie Dairy workers hitting cows with fiberglass rods. He also criticized the dairy for taking calves away from their mothers right after birth.

Southeast Milk released the following statement on Dec. 20:

“Last week, Southeast Milk, Inc. (SMI) completed mandatory, remedial animal care trainings for all of its member owners and operators. This series of trainings, held in Georgia, Louisiana and Florida, represent the completion of the first of three commitments made by SMI immediately after learning of animal care and handling issues on several of its member farms in Okeechobee, Fla.

“Upon learning of these incidents in early November, SMI quickly pledged to first hold required training sessions on animal care and management best practices for all member farmers; second, to implement the newest version of the National Dairy FARM Program – the dairy industry’s animal care program that requires stricter adherence to training protocols and animal care best management practices; and third, working with membership to implement or strengthen video monitoring on their farms.

“For the series of training sessions last week, SMI worked with industry experts to travel nearly 1,900 miles, providing training to more than 300 SMI owners, operators and employees. These extensive, day-long trainings took place in Franklinton, La.; Montezuma, Ga.; Gainesville, Fla. and Okeechobee, Fla. and included presentations and discussion from representatives of the FARM Program, Merck Animal Health, and the University of Florida.

These comprehensive trainings covered topics including employee management and supervision, calf care, humane euthanasia and emergency preparedness. The strong attendance indicates that our members understand the severity of the situation and are willing to take the steps necessary to care for their animals properly and humanely — which is in line with the expectations of our customers, our fellow Floridians, and the leadership of SMI.

“These trainings were only the first step in our ongoing commitment to address this issue and demonstrate our commitment to the highest level of animal care. We are working to implement the steps in our plan and look forward to keeping our customers and the public abreast of our progress.

“Also last week, the Okeechobee sheriff released the names of all farms currently being investigated, including Davie Dairy. All four farms under investigation have since been placed on probationary status in the FARM program and have already begun implementing substantial corrective actions. It is our understanding that the video footage obtained by ARM on Davie Dairy, as with the other farms, was taken during the late summer or before.

Though we did not learn of these allegations until recently, we have acted swiftly and decisively since that time, working with our member farms to take all corrective actions suggested by third-party auditors and have fully cooperated with national and local law enforcement. Specifically, the farms all worked to terminate and retrain employees, as appropriate, and have made changes to calf housing, reviewed protocols for euthanasia and the handling of sick or injured animals, and examined emergency preparedness measures. It is our hope that all footage has now been provided to the appropriate authorities so that, in the best interest of animals, steps can be taken to now address any and all issues discovered this summer.”

The Florida Department of Agricultural and Consumer Services (FDACS) inspected Davie Dairy on Oct. 12 and gave the dairy a score of 91 percent. According to the FDACS report, the dairy produces 67,000 pounds of milk per day. The FDACS inspector deducted 5 points for a problem with the connection between the potable and non-potable water, and 4 points for raw wood on the a supply room door that needs to be painted. The dairy was also advised to remove spider webs; remove weeds and mow when the area dried out enough to do so; and clean a hose port and connector for hose storage on wall. No violations were given.

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