Group levels abuse allegations against NM dairy

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The New Mexico Livestock Board has launched an investigation into a southern New Mexico dairy after an activist working with an animal welfare group recorded secret video showing workers whipping cows with chains and wire cables, kicking and punching the animals, and shocking them with electric prods.

Board officials confirmed the investigation into the practices at the Winchester Dairy near Dexter on Tuesday, saying they are working to schedule interviews with the activist as well as the workers identified in the video.

"We are investigating it very aggressively. The district attorney is on board and everybody is working hard to make sure we do this right," said Shawn Davis, an area supervisor with the livestock board.

Dairy officials have been cooperating since investigators first arrived last Friday, board officials said.

The dairy said in a statement to The Associated Press that animal care and well-being are central to its operation. As a result, the dairy fired all employees and referred the abusive workers to law enforcement for further review following its own internal investigation.

The dairy also halted milking operations, stopped shipments to all vendors and dispersed thousands of cows to other dairies with strong track records in animal welfare.

"We remain committed to the ethical and responsible treatment of the animals and have learned from this incident," the dairy said.

It was not immediately clear whether the dairy's closure was temporary. Winchester is one of more than 140 family-owned dairies in New Mexico, a state that ranks in the top 10 nationally when it comes to milk production. The industry employs about 4,200 workers and has a direct economic impact of about $1 billion.

The Los Angeles-based animal welfare group Mercy for Animals first sent the video footage to the livestock agency last Thursday. It planned to publicly release a compilation of clips that show the abuse during a news conference Wednesday in Albuquerque.

An activist with Mercy for Animals shot the video while working on the farm in August and September. Aside from the whipping, kicking and punching, the video shows calves being tossed into the back of a truck and cows that can't stand being dragged with heavy equipment or lifted with clamps.

The group said the types of abuses uncovered during its investigations of six separate dairies around the country — including the New Mexico dairy — are all similar.

"So this isn't a matter of a single dairy farm failing to meet industry standards. This is a matter of industry standards allowing for blatant animal abuse," said Matt Rice, the group's director of investigations. "That's why we're calling on the industry to make improvements at all of its facilities to prevent this type of abuse."

Mercy for Animals is specifically calling on Denver-based Leprino Foods, which is supplied by the New Mexico dairy and produces cheese for major pizza chains, to adopt a zero-tolerance policy for kicking, punching and shocking cows and require suppliers to provide safe and sanitary environments for the animals.

"A lot of times, these are really wet, slippery environments that these animals are in and then they fall and injure themselves and that's often when we see workers abusing the animals in an effort to get them up again. They resort to kicking and punching and whipping them," Rice said.

Leprino Foods did not immediately return a message seeking comment.