Larson Dairy in Okeechobee, Fla. — one of the state’s largest milk suppliers — is under criminal investigation after a video surfaced online showing its workers kicking and beating cows.
“I believe there will be criminal charges forthcoming on the completion of this investigation,” Okeechobee County Sheriff Noel Stephen said at a news conference Thursday afternoon, according to the Sun-Sentinel.
The video also caused a financial backlash. Publix — a popular Florida-based supermarket chain with more than 1,000 locations in the Southern United States — suspended its relationship with the farm, which supplied the grocer with raw milk.
A spokesman for the grocery chain said in a statement on Twitter it was “shocked and disturbed by the cruelty” depicted in the videos.
Meanwhile, the National Milk Producers Federation placed the farm on probation, pending an investigation. And on Sunday, a small group carrying signs with photographs of cows gathered to protest the farm, while one star reviews of the dairy producer flooded Google.
The video opens with shots of cows crowded into small pens and milking stalls. Then, it shows several workers hitting a cow’s neck and head with a metal construction rebar and a twisted towel.
“The sharp metal rods pierce and penetrate the cow’s bodies,” says a narrator on the video shot by the nonprofit organization Animal Recovery Mission using hidden cameras. “Kept hidden from tours and visitors of the dairy, the cows are brutalized.”
At one point, a man in boots, blue jeans and a T-shirt punches and kicks a cow in the head while it is trapped in a milking stall. Spittle flies from the animal’s mouth as its head snaps back. In another scene, a man punches a cow, a new mother, in her heavy milk-filled udders.
“Larson Dairy cows are milked, tormented and beaten three times a day, 305 days a year, for life,” the narrator says.
The video also shows newborn calves stuck in small cages in a field on the farm, far from public view.
The farm’s owner, Jacob Larson, said in a statement to the Associated Press that he had fired “the employee involved.” He didn’t specify which employee. At least three were filmed attacking the cows.
“The unusual use of force is simply unacceptable on our dairy or on any other farm,” Larson said in the statement. “We have strict protocols involving animal care and clearly the behavior shown in this video goes against everything we stand for and will not be tolerated.”
The video was shot by an unidentified ARM employee, who took a job at Larson Dairy as a dairy milker. He secretly filmed the goings-on at the farm in August and September this year.
“On day one, we started seeing serious abuse by the milkers, by the managers, by the foremen,” Richard Couto with ARM, told WQAM. “The abuse continued as the days went on.”
Larson said he was “concerned about the manner in which this video was brought to our attention.”
“Had the ‘undercover’ employee brought this to our attention when it occurred, we may have been able to prevent it earlier,” Larson said.
Okeechobee County Commissioner Bryant Culpepper, a longtime friend of Larson’s, shared this viewpoint — and took it a step further.
“Somebody got paid off to do this because Mr. Larson and his family have built an empire in the dairy industry. They’ve been credible stewards of these animals because they know their life and animals abused” do not “produce milk like animals that are cared for,” Culpepper told WPEC.
Others strongly disagreed. Kayla Leaming, a member of a group called Okeechobee Animal Save who drove from Orlando to protest the farm on Sunday, told WPEC, “If these people actually care about their animals they would keep better tabs on what’s going on. There wouldn’t be a chance for these cows to be beaten like that.”