DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. - The Animal Recovery Mission is demanding that felony charges be brought against employees at the Larson Dairy Farm in Okeechobee who they said were caught on camera abusing cows.
Larson Dairy produces more than 25,000 gallons of milk a day and sells its milk in many large grocery stores, including Publix, ARM officials said.
A Publix spokeswoman said in a statement that the company was "disturbed" by the images and suspended raw milk deliveries from the farm.
Surveillance video acquired by an undercover ARM investigator shows employees beating the cows.
According to a news release, the undercover investigator secured a job at Larson Dairy in August and captured and documented the "extensive and widespread abuse."
ARM is requesting that state and federal authorities charge Larson Dairy owner Jacob Larson with a third-degree felony for having control of the dairy cows at the company's barn and failing to act upon his employees.
"Yesterday, we had meetings with the State Attorney's Office in Okeechobee County," said Richard Couto, founder and lead investigator of ARM. "We showed a few different prosecutors the video you have and they were not happy. They looked at this and said, 'Yes, this is a criminal case.'"
ARM is also requesting that charges be brought against the dairy farm workers and their supervisors.
"Larson Dairy's violence toward animals is both disturbing and horrific. It saddens me knowing that these cows are still in the hands of such abusers. The unfortunate reality is the abusive practices we found at Larson are a plague across much of the dairy industry. We are committed to ensuring those responsible are brought to justice," Couto said. "As we will prove in the coming weeks, the unfortunate reality is the abusive practices we found at Larson are a plague across much of the dairy industry. We are committed to ensuring those responsible are brought to justice."
ARM officials said Larson Dairy workers were instructed by their supervisors to use any means necessary to increase production.
***WARNING: Video shows graphic footage that some may find disturbing***
They said steel rebar was used as weapons to force cows into their milking stations and employees used the rebar to spear and beat the dairy cows repeatedly in the torso and head.
ARM officials said workers also were captured on camera punching and kicking the cows in the head, often bringing the 1,500-pound animal to its knees.
ARM officials claimed that Larson witnessed many of the abuses within the milking barn and never made any attempt to discipline his employees.
"Steel construction rebar came out by not only the dairy workers at Larson Dairy, but also the foreman and the managers," Couto said. "Jacob Larson himself -- one of the controllers and owners of Larson Dairy was on site. He saw in the milking barn himself and he saw the brutality."
Okeechobee County Sheriff Noel Stephen confirmed that a criminal investigation has been opened, but said at a news conference Thursday that it's unlikely that the dairy farm owners would be charged.
"I don't see any of that at this point," Stephen said. "Once again, I stand before you to say that these gentleman would not condone this kind of activity. Had they known about it, they would have fired them on the spot."
Besides Publix, ARM officials said the company also has strong ties to the University of Florida, which uses Larson Daisy as a laboratory for dairy science and the UF veterinary school.
Couto said he received a threatening letter from Larson Dairy Farms' lawyer, telling him they would take legal action if he released the video.
Jacob Larson released a statement later in the day, saying that he was "deeply saddened and appalled by the actions witnessed in this video," and said that he only learned about the accusations against his workers on Thursday morning.
Full statement from Jacob Larson:
"We are deeply saddened and appalled by the actions witnessed in this video, which first came to our attention this morning.
"The unusual use of force is simply unacceptable on our dairy or on any other farm," the statement read. "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 employee involved and featured in the video has been terminated. Further corrective action will be taken if necessary as we continue to analyze the video and conduct an on-farm investigation.
"We are equally 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.
"Dairy farmers have the utmost responsibility to compassionately care for our animals and this is not an adequate reflection of how we do that on a daily basis."
Full statement released by Publix:
"We were recently made aware of the undercover video taken at Larson Dairy, Inc. Like you, we are disturbed by the images and shocked by the cruelty shown toward the animals. We immediately followed up with the CEO of Southeast Milk Incorporated (SMI) Cooperative, of which Larson Dairy, Inc. is a member. We have advised SMI that we are suspending raw milk deliveries from that farm. We have also been in contact with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and they have advised us they will be visiting Larson Dairy, Inc. as quickly as possible to ensure the safety and well-being of the animals.
"At Publix, we care about and are committed to animal welfare and are focused on working with suppliers who share the same goals. We also appreciate the trust our customers place in us to do the right thing, and we work hard to live up to that responsibility."
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