Strapped with a surveillance camera, the animal rights activist went undercover this fall to document activities at a New Mexico dairy that supplied cheese products to several major U.S. pizza chains.
He says he was sickened by what he saw — and videotaped. This wasn't a slaughterhouse, but a dairy farm where animals live for years.
The activist says he captured images of workers using chains and metal wires to whip animals on their faces and bodies, using tractors to drag milk cows too weak to walk on their own, and electrically shocking the genitals of many animals to get them to move. Cows were also kicked, punched and stabbed with screwdrivers, the footage showed.
The Winchester Dairy, a 3,000-head, privately owned business outside Roswell, closed down shortly after the video became public in September, the firm said in a statement. The cows were sent to other dairies and the employees fired. The New Mexico Livestock Board, a state agency, launched an investigation, and the Chaves County district attorney's office is reviewing evidence for possible criminal charges.
On Thursday, Denver-based Leprino Foods, for whom Winchester Dairy was a supplier, announced a program that requires its dairy suppliers and farmers to comply with new company guidelines regarding animal care. Leprino, the world's largest producer of mozzarella cheese and a supplier to fast-food chains nationwide, has said that it was "extremely repulsed" by the video.
The company also said that it plans to meet with the Los Angeles-based activist group Mercy for Animals, which conducted the New Mexico videotaping operation.
In a statement, Mercy for Animals said it was "cautiously optimistic" of the move by Leprino and eager to see how it would enforce the new animal care guidelines.
"No socially responsible corporation should support dairy operations that beat, kick, shock, mutilate and drag animals," Nathan Runkle, the group's president, said in the statement.
The livestock board completed its investigation into Winchester in October, but Chaves County has yet to say whether it will file charges. "We gave the prosecutors our results months ago," said Ray Baca, executive director of the board. "But we've heard nothing from them." The prosecutor's office did not respond to calls for comment.
Mercy for Animals has gone undercover to document animal treatment practices at dairies and other businesses in New York, Ohio, Idaho, Wisconsin and Texas. The targets are chosen at random; undercover activists apply for laborer jobs and document what they find.
"Unfortunately," said Matt Rice, director of investigations for Mercy for Animals, "every time we go behind closed doors, our investigators emerge with images that shock and horrify most Americans."
Such undercover activism has been banned in some states. Legislatures in Idaho, Utah, Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota, Montana and Kansas have passed what critics call "ag-gag" laws that criminalize taking video of animal agriculture operations without permission from the owner.
Mercy for Animals inquiries have prompted responses from the industry. The group says it documented activities at a Wisconsin dairy similar to those it reported at the Winchester Dairy. Those findings prompted food giant Nestle, which had been supplied by the Wisconsin operation, to announce sweeping changes in its handling of farm animals.
"The company flew executives in from Switzerland," said Rice. "They later announced the most comprehensive animal welfare policy ever from a company, that has suppliers in 90 countries, not just dairies but all suppliers."
Nestle, in its "supplier code," pledged to "ensure that all materials derived from animals, which are used in the manufacturing of products sold by Nestle, comply fully with all applicable local laws and regulations on farm animal welfare."
The dairy industry has also spoken out against abuse at farms.
"Abuse of animals is illegal in most states — it's just unethical and bad for business to mistreat cows in ways that negatively impact their health," said Chris Galen, a spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation.
The group conducts a safe-practices program for members nationwide. "But there are no allowances for the types of abuse I saw in the video," he said.
An activist with Mercy for Animals began work at Winchester in July. "The worker who was training me how to do my job was abusing cows — pulling tails, slapping them — when he didn't need to," said the activist named Robert, who would not give his last name because he was conducting an undercover investigation in another state. "I saw abuse the very first day on the job and every day after that."
Robert later captured what he said he saw — whippings with metal chains, electric prods applied to the milking cows' udders — on video.
"The entire five and a half months I was on the farm, I didn't see a single veterinarian," Robert said.
He reported the abuse to a foreman. The response was a grunt, Robert said. "He turned around and walked away. There was never any corrective action."
Included in the program announced by Leprino is a third-party auditing system to verify compliance among suppliers, animal care training programs and an oversight committee to investigate animal abuse.