What The Dairy Narrative Is Missing: Lessons Learned From Years Of Investigations In Our Movement

Cheryl LeahyAnimals, Cheryl Leahy, Investigations 1 Comment

There has been an uptick in public interest in switching to what used to be called “dairy alternatives,” language that still implicitly places the vegan options in the outsider position and puts cow’s milk in the dominant frame. Now, people refer to non-dairy milk products as “plant milks,” bringing them right to the center of the table –quite literally— and to the center of the conversation, no longer a mere “alternative.”

Legal victory

In fact, in a capstone moment in this fight for legitimacy, Miyoko’s Creamery, which has already been on a meteoric rise, won its court battle to use the term “butter” on its cashew-based butter. Consumers literally can’t get enough of the taste of these plant milks, with the growth in this sector rapidly outpacing cow’s milk dairy. Major corporations with the creative advertising chops to match their size have brought plant milks to our televisions, streaming services and bus stops. I’m partial to Oatly’s “Wow, No Cow” and Silk’s “Milk of the Land.” I laughed when I saw WandaVision move from the retro iconic kitchen table with a gallon of cow’s milk on it to the snapshot of modern Americana having replaced that cow’s milk with almond milk. Progress.

Dairy has been knocked off its cultural pedestal. The rose colored glasses are off.

The violent truth about dairy

It’s only logical that along with this shift to plant milks, Americans have become more curious about what actually goes on in the dairy industry. The New York Times covered Animal Outlook’s investigation of a dairy facility late last year, with the headline “Is Dairy Farming Cruel to Cows?” The piece trotted out an industry spokesperson to defend dairy, painting a bucolic image of dairy farming and, no exaggeration, refers to “The Farmer in the Dell” in the first paragraph. It then sets that position in contrast with the position of animal advocates like myself that dairy farming is cruel, conceding the unavoidable realities of some of the standard practices: artificial insemination, taking newborns from mother cows, killing the male calves for veal, female calves having their horns burned off, and mother cows being sent to slaughter at a young age to produce cheap hamburger. 


Look at the broader controversy around dairy and these standard practices and conditions, along with a few others like tail docking, veal crates and isolating calf “hutches,” frequent health issues like mastitis, prolapses, and calf “scours” – viral diarrhea causing dehydration, round out the discussion. All of this is part of dairy, and all of it causes widespread suffering and death, weakly justified by profit. Advocates also raise concerns over the environmental impact of dairy, including its massive use of water, often exacerbated by the dry regions where much of dairy farming is concentrated, like New Mexico and central California; its massive contribution to global warming; and the negative health effects of consuming dairy — it’s linked to a number of serious health conditions when consumed by humans, from cancer to autoimmune diseases.

Classic messages like “cow milk is for baby cows” and “not your mom, not your milk” put a point on the above arguments, which together make for a truly compelling and persuasive case against dairy.

But something is missing.

Industry-sanctioned cruelty

I’ve been spending more time than usual recently poring through investigation footage and looking at the role undercover investigations have played in advancing animal protection. Here’s what’s bugging me: the facts of each and every dairy industry investigation over at least the past decade or so that I’ve found, conducted by Animal Outlook and other advocacy organizations, are rife with horrific and abundant violence.

Certainly, the line is blurred between violence that is industry-sanctioned as standard practices and that which is seen as egregious or excessive. Hot-iron disbudding is a great example. Done by 94% of the dairy industry, this cruel practice causes calves to writhe and kick in excruciating pain, despite the existence of a simple alternative to this practice that the industry is just not taking. Neglect is also widespread, and often quite severe.

What I’m focused on here is aggressive violence, often done in the process of moving animals, many of whom are too sick or weak to walk, a phenomenon the industry calls “downers.” Of the dozen-plus dairy industry investigations I found from the last decade or so, the most common types of violent treatment across investigations include: kicking (sometimes in the face or other sensitive areas), twisting or lifting animals by the tail (sometimes causing bones to break), hitting with hard objects (such as a cane or beating calves in the face with bottles), punching, throwing, and shocking with electric prods. Additionally, several investigations found each of the following: hoisting and dragging cows with a metal “hip clamp” chained to a tractor, spraying cows with high-pressure hoses, and repeated ineffective kill attempts with either a captive bolt pistol or a gun.

I consistently see the reality of violence as an inherent part of dairy downgraded or left out of the conversation. This is not for lack of trying by animal advocacy organizations. In many of these investigations, the organizations went above and beyond in their creative and tenacious efforts to get accountability for the violent cruelty, working to bring the story of the violent cruelty as well as the neglect and abusive standard practices to the public and in major media outlets, calling for the accountability of the multinational corporations who sell these products, and seeking legal enforcement. There have been notable successes, including: increased vegan options by Nestlé, the world’s largest food company, and some enforcement of animal protective laws, including criminal cruelty convictions, ongoing civil enforcement, and widespread media coverage.    

Still, the larger public narrative often leaves out the violent cruelty, blaming it on low-level suppliers or workers as aberrant acts. The larger corporations often wipe their hands clean by claiming “shock” or “sadness” over the violent cruelty — and escape legal liability as well.

Dairy is violent 

Along with the suffering, deprivation and death imposed on cows by the “best” run dairies and their standard practices, the realities of dairy farming include violence. There may be some variation of the type and amount of violence, but it is an inherent part of dairy. It is a feature, not a bug, in the system that cannot be explained away or pinned on a few wayward workers or individual farms.

Despite the industry’s best efforts to hide and divert attention from these violent realities, we have the information that shows the truth. The animal advocacy movement is two decades into the use of undercover investigations, and the video footage is readily available for anyone and everyone to make their own assessment. We need to look at this industry and the narratives around it through a critical lens.

While we’re at it, let’s take a closer look at the pork industry too, which is going to look eerily familiar.


Comments 1

  1. This is a despicable industry, for sure. They should not be allowed to get away with it just because they “pay off” congressmen!

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