Posted: Wednesday, October 10, 2012 7:37 AM
By REBECCA BOONE
BOISE, Idaho (AP) -- Three former dairy workers with Idaho's largest dairy operation have been charged with misdemeanor animal cruelty after undercover video shot by an animal rights group showed workers stomping, dragging and beating cows inside a milking barn.
The video was shot using a hidden camera by a member of Mercy for Animals who got a job at Bettencourt Dairies' Dry Creek Dairy in Hansen for a few weeks this summer.
It shows workers at the dairy beating cows with a pink cane as the animals slipped and slid on the wet concrete floor; workers kicking, shoving and stomping cows that have fallen between the metal bars in the milking stalls; and a cow being dragged out of the barn by a chain around her neck as she lies prone on the concrete floor.
Twin Falls County Prosecutor Grant Loebs said he filed misdemeanor animal cruelty charges against Jesus Garza, Jose Acensio and Javier Victor Rojas Loayza in late August after an investigation that was prompted by the video. If convicted, the men face fines of up to $5,000 each and six months of jail time on a first offense.
Luis Bettencourt, the owner of the dairy, said that when the Idaho Department of Agriculture told him about the video and allegations, he was "sick about it." Bettencourt's dairy operation is the largest in Idaho, with 13 facilities and about 60,000 milk cows.
"We don't tolerate animal abuse. That's a big issue for us," Bettencourt said. "I love my animals and I've been in the dairy business since I was a kid. Animal care is a number one issue in our facilities."
Bettencourt said officials with the Idaho Department of Agriculture showed him the footage in August and he fired the five workers seen in the video the next day. In the weeks since, he said he's installed video cameras throughout his facilities and hired an additional supervisor.
"And we also showed the video to all the rest of the employees in our dairies, all 500 employees, and they had to sign a deal that said they understand that there's zero tolerance for animal abuse in our dairies," he said. "We've been in business 30 years and we've never had this happen before. We're all devastated here."
Nathan Runkle, the executive director of Mercy for Animals, said those steps amount to "too little too late." He hopes the video will convince Kraft Foods, Burger King and other companies to stop using products made from milk from the Idaho company and send a "clear message to the industry that animal abuse will not be tolerated."
Neither Kraft nor Burger King has a direct relationship with Bettencourt Dairies. Kraft does work with a cheese processing company in Idaho that uses milk from Bettencourt's facilities, and Burger King officials said the dairy is an indirect supplier of a small percentage of cheese products used by the restaurant chain.
Members of the animal rights group held press conferences in Boise, Miami and other locations Wednesday in an effort to draw attention to the video and pressure food companies to force changes.
"We believe this abuse is ongoing and was allowed to flourish, unchecked, until Mercy for Animal sent a hidden camera in," Runkle told The Associated Press. "There are no meaningful watchdogs inside a factory farm. ... Across the country this is actually our fourth dairy industry investigation that we've done and every single one of those investigations has led to animal cruelty charges being filed."
The organization wants Kraft and Burger King to require suppliers to establish policies on the care and treatment of cattle, including prohibiting animals from being dragged without a sled, prohibiting dairies from docking the tails of cattle or removing their horns after a certain age, and requiring that the provide clean, dry housing areas and nonslip flooring in milking barns.
Angela Wiggins, a spokeswoman for Kraft, said the company is continuing to voluntarily work with its dairy suppliers to make sure they meet or exceed animal care guidelines.
"Kraft has cared about the well-being of animals for years. We have high standards for our suppliers already in place," Wiggins said.
The video was upsetting, and Kraft doesn't condone the abusive behaviors, she said.
"We think it's extremely serious," she said, adding, "We're glad to see the immediate action taken by those involved."
Wiggins also stressed that Kraft doesn't raise dairy cows and doesn't have a direct relationship with Bettencourt dairies. She said the company planned to make its standards and communications with suppliers more transparent for consumers, and will post them on its website.
Burger King spokesman Bryson W. Thornton said his company takes the matter seriously and doesn't tolerate or condone cruelty to animals.
"Burger King Worldwide has launched an immediate investigation into this serious allegation and will take swift action if there is evidence of systemic violations to our animal welfare policies or vendor code of ethics," he said.
Loebs, the prosecutor, said Bettencourt Dairies has cooperated fully with law enforcement and investigators don't believe any of the dairy's upper management knew about the mistreatment.
"There's no indication at all that the owners of the dairy were in any way complicit in this behavior. In fact, they have been extremely cooperative with the investigation," Loebs said. "They were very supportive of the charges being filed and as far as I can tell, it's an isolated incident."
Pam Juker, spokeswoman for the Idaho Department of Agriculture, said the agency launched an investigation immediately after Mercy for Animals officials showed the department the video and other documentation.
"Obviously our first concern is the well-being of the animals," Juker said. "The images do not meet acceptable animal care or husbandry standards. So we did a preliminary investigation and then turned the matter over to local law enforcement."
The agency hasn't ever received any other animal welfare complaints involving Bettencourt dairies, she said.
Associated Press reporters Tammy Webber in Chicago and Suzette Laboy in Miami contributed to this report.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.