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Suit against Organic Valley calls separating cows from calves inhumane

On one panel of Organic Valley’s whole milk carton, the dairy cooperative says its “commitment to the highest organic standards and animal care practices helps make all our food delicious and nutritious.” Rotate the carton 90 degrees, and another panel tells consumers that Organic Valley believes “the best organic milk begins with . . . taking care of our cows,” relying on “humane” and “holistic health” practices.

A class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday in Alameda County, Calif., alleges that the messages on Organic Valley’s cartons, whether stated directly or implied with pastoral images of green fields and happy cows, deceive customers in the Golden State. The statements and imagery, the complaint alleges, do little more than provide cover to a common industry practice that tends to alarm the public when they learn about it: the separation of newborn calves from their mothers.

Plaintiff Amber Takahashi-Mendoza, who’s represented in part by attorneys from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Foundation, claims that Organic Valley’s consumer packaging tricks shoppers into paying more for milk products that actually come from cows stressed from the forced separation of their newborns.

“These calves are then reared in isolation hutches, often in poor health without vital socialization and natural sustenance. Male calves are quickly sold for eventual commercial slaughter, while female calves go on to give birth to calves who are immediately taken away from them. These practices are not ‘humane’ and do not comport with established ‘highest standards’ of animal care . . . that Defendant touts on its labels,” the complaint alleges.

A spokeswoman for Organic Valley said the company could not comment because it hasn’t seen the lawsuit yet.

The suit is the latest salvo in animal activists’ campaign against cow-calf separation, a practice that dates back decades and was designed in part, dairy industry experts say, to protect the health of the newborns. But armed with studies and surveys, activists have been increasingly taking aim at a practice they contend is inhumane and widely unpopular with the general public.

Takahashi-Mendoza’s complaint alleges that when separated within hours of a calf’s birth, both mother and newborn can exhibit signs of acute stress, such as weight loss, vocalizations and abnormal behaviors (like calves hugging a fence line or sucking on fixtures within their enclosures). What’s more, the lawsuit claims, early separation can make mother and calf more susceptible to disease, not less, as the dairy industry says.

“Numerous studies have established that abrupt and premature weaning impairs immune responses in calves, such as by impairing the function of cellular and other defenses against pathogens necessary to prevent potentially deadly infections,” the lawsuit says.

The complaint features two heavyweights in their respective fields. Organic Valley is the Wisconsin-based cooperative of independent farmers, about 1,800 by the group’s accounting. According to a news release in June 2021, Organic Valley posted sales of $1.2 billion in 2020, a record for the co-op at a time when milk sales have been plummeting for years, despite an uptick early in the pandemic.

On the other side is the legal arm for PETA, which bills itself as the world’s largest animal rights organization. The group has a reputation for generating outrage with its publicity stunts, like when it passed out comic books to children whose parents wore furs to “The Nutcracker” (title of the book: “Your Mommy Kills Animals”) or when it ran ads that compared factory farms to concentration camps during the Holocaust.

Last year, PETA gave Organic Valley a “Liar, Liar Pants on Fire” award for what the organization called the “humane washing” of its animal husbandry practices. The group, which advocates for a vegan diet, has long railed against milk consumption. “Since consuming cow’s milk is something that PETA understands to be both unhealthy and totally unnecessary, there’s no justification for exploiting or killing any animals for their milk,” said Asher Smith, director of litigation for the PETA Foundation, in an interview with The Post.

The California lawsuit grew out of a complaint that PETA received from Takahashi-Mendoza last year, Smith said. She filled out an online form that asks consumers to explain how they felt misled by a “humane” label on a product. Smith and his colleagues at the PETA Foundation were intrigued by Takahashi-Mendoza’s case, in part because Organic Valley has at least 18 member farms in California and because the state has a provision in which the farms’ alleged animal husbandry practices could be considered violations of animal cruelty laws.

The central argument in the lawsuit is the same one playing out at dairy farms across the globe: What system is better for the cows that supply the milk?

Dairy farmers, particularly in the United States, argue that early calf-cow separation is better for the animals. Separating a mother and calf before they form a strong bond is less dangerous for farmworkers, and less stressful for the animals, than separating them later. They say early separation also reduces the threat of disease and injury to calves while ensuring that farmers can feed them a high-quality colostrum, a nutrient-dense milk that kick starts a calf’s immune system in the first hours after birth.

But, industry experts and farmers say, there is also a business case for separation: The newborns drink a lot of milk that would otherwise be sold. “As the calf ages, it takes more and more of the milk,” says Myron Martin, owner of Peace Hollow Farm in Knoxville, Md., which sells to Organic Valley. “We wouldn’t have any milk to sell.”

On the flip side, PETA and some researchers argue, there is a better way. Numerous dairy farms, especially in Europe, have been experimenting with more humane systems, sometimes called cow-calf contact or calf-at-foot farms, in which newborns are raised by their mothers’ side in a more natural environment. The benefits, activists and farmers say, are many: The system reduces stress, promotes weight gain, improves health and lowers mortality rates, all of which may help compensate, in the long run, for the milk lost to nursing calves.

But the transition to the new system is tough, in part because farms, especially in the United States, are not designed to house cows and calves together. Plus, says Martin from Peace Hollow Farm, it’s difficult to move a cow to a milking parlor right after she has fed her calf, which is why he has adopted a different model: He has “nurse cows” on pasture, who become surrogate mothers to three newborn calves.

The dairy industry is not resistant to changes in the way it does business, says Jamie Jonker, chief science officer for the National Milk Producers Federation. Jonker says he’s part of a working group with the International Dairy Federation, a scientific and technical organization, that is examining calf-raising systems to determine best practices. Jonker said there’s not yet a body of evidence to support the benefits of cow-calf contact farms compared to cow-calf separation systems.

“It’s important that we have the scientific research behind the process to help inform how we change systems rather than simply changing systems due to activist pressure,” Jonker says.