Fairlife, Coca-Cola, hit with second wave of lawsuits over animal abuse allegations



Brief:

  • Four lawsuits have been filed against Fairlife, the high-protein milk producer, with one naming Coca-Cola as a defendant, Food Navigator reported. The lawsuits, filed in Illinois, Indiana and Georgia, accuse the companies of consumer fraud and deceptive marketing after undercover videos of animal abuse taken at a Fairlife supplier dairy in Indiana were released by an animal welfare group.
  • Fairlife CEO Mike Saint John said the company has discontinued milk deliveries from Fair Oaks Farms. Four dairy workers were fired and three charged with animal cruelty, according to the Chicago Tribune. 
  • Coca-Cola, which owns Fairlife in a joint venture with Select Milk Producers, said in a statement it was conducting independent investigations of all Fairlife dairy suppliers. A number of retailers, including Jewel-Osco, Tony's Fresh Market and Pete's Fresh Market, took Fairlife products off the shelves, Food Navigator reported. 

Insight:

These lawsuits could push more companies to think about animal welfare in their practices to avoid the potential fallout Fairlife currently faces.

While some of the lawsuits might settle before trial to avoid additional damage, the negative attention from the filings will likely hurt the brand. Although this whole situation could cast a negative light on Fairlife, Coca-Cola, the dairy farm and the dairy industry by extension, the companies were quick to respond with commitments to change how they do business.

"We realize we've got to make a change," Tim Doelman, Fairlife's COO, told NBC Chicago. "Even though we had good practices and training, and we had good practices in documentation and all those things for the employees, it didn't work."

The effort at damage control was fast and comprehensive. All three companies issued statements, posted special web pages updating the public and committed to cleaning up internal operations and adopting new standards to avoid further instances of animal abuse at supplying dairies.

Fairlife plans to audit all 30 of its supplying farms within a month, perform 24 unannounced farm audits annually and require suppliers' employees to annually recertify in animal welfare training. The company also said it will sign updated contracts with suppliers requiring them to fire employees caught abusing an animal and cooperate with any law enforcement investigations.

The dairy industry has been trying to get a handle on animal abuse problems by ramping up standards and providing assistance. Nearly all the U.S. milk supply is represented through the National Dairy Farms Assuring Responsible Management program, which sets animal care standards for participating farms. The program makes certified second-party evaluators available to work with dairy producers "to identify strengths and outline areas for improvement related to animal care."

Farms can be more susceptible to animal abuse when there are too many hens and cows, according to some industry observers. While the majority of U.S. dairy farms have 500 cows or less, thousands of smaller farms have gone out of business, consolidating milk production in the hands of ever-larger operations. Fair Oaks Farms is the largest dairy farm in Indiana with 37,000 cows, TODAY reported.

Critics of dairy operations, such as Mercy for Animals, PETA and The Humane Society of the U.S., maintain animal abuse is common in the industry. But dairy groups say such instances aren't the norm and that they're just as horrified as anyone else by seeing videos of animal abuse.

The verdict of these lawsuits will likely have an impact on future animal abuse cases, but for now Fairlife will be focusing on its reputation. If a company does the right thing from the start and updates consumers on changes, it may be able to recover its reputation. So far, these companies' first steps are moving them in the right direction, but plenty of consumers will be watching to see what happens.