NESTLÉ Foods said it had severed all ties with a Wisconsin dairy that was the subject of an undercover video of animal abuse released by animal rights group Mercy For Animals (MFA).
The video, released Dec. 10, showed workers kicking, beating and dragging cows in a way that animal welfare expert Temple Grandin described as "very abusive, cruel behavior."
MFA, known for its undercover videos and fervent promotion of a vegan lifestyle, used the video to target Nestlé's DiGiorno Pizza brand, calling on consumers to "ditch dairy, ditch DiGiorno."
The video was filmed in October at Wiese Brothers Farms in Greenleaf, Wis. Nestlé purchases cheese for its pizzas from Foremost Farms, a regional cooperative with several cheese processing facilities throughout Wisconsin, including a plant in Appleton, where Weise Brothers delivered milk.
Foremost Farms said it will no longer accept milk from the dairy, which noted that it has terminated two employees as part of its own investigation into what happened in the video.
"We have zero tolerance for animal abuse," the Wiese family said in a prepared statement. "Because of our commitment to our cows, we work closely with veterinarians and dairy experts to ensure proper care, feeding and management of our dairy cattle."
The family said it was "cooperating fully" with local authorities to facilitate their investigation of potential charges. In addition to terminating two employees depicted in the video, a third was removed from animal handling responsibilities. The company also has chosen three employees as "specialists" tasked with supervising the care and handling of any cow unable to get up or move without assistance.
Grandin, a professor at Colorado State University, said the problems depicted in the video indicated an obvious deficiency in those areas.
"My experience has been that when problems like these occur, it can usually be traced back to a lack of supervision," she said. "There are clear problems of employee training and employee supervision seen in this video. It takes strong management to make it be known that there are certain things you just don't do and won't be tolerated."
Jim Reynolds, a professor of large-animal medicine and welfare at Western University in Pomona, Cal., agreed, saying there was "nothing defendable in the video" and that the cows shown in the footage were under stress, in fear and probably in pain. He said the types of behaviors exhibited by workers in the video should lead to criminal charges of animal cruelty.
"The employees seen in the video completely lacked basic understanding of animal welfare and animal behavior," Reynolds said. "They showed no empathy for the cows."
Wiese Brothers, in the statement, said it originally learned of the video on Nov. 26, and within 24 hours, an independent animal care auditor conducted a review of the farm's written protocols for animal handling and observed farm employees and the condition of the animals on the farm.
"While they noted a few areas for improvement, their overall analysis indicated our animals are clean, well cared for and treated appropriately by employees," the family said. Wiese Brothers refused Feedstuffs' request to tour the farm, as well as requests for additional comment beyond the prepared statement.
For its part, MFA used the video to bombard DiGiorno's Facebook page with comments from the organization's supporters, specifically to promote a vegan lifestyle.
"Although unconscionable cruelty and violence are standard practice for DiGiorno cheese suppliers, caring consumers can help end the needless suffering of cows and other farmed animals by choosing vegan alternatives to milk, cheese and ice cream," MFA said on its website.
According to published profiles of the farm, Wiese Brothers milked more than 4,300 cows in two facilities as of January 2012. Sources told Feedstuffs that the operation manages as many as 8,600 animals following an expansion project completed last year.