Southeast Milk addresses cow abuse on 2 Okeechobee farms

DEERFIELD BEACH, FLA. (WSVN) - Dairy farmers are taking action weeks after acts of abuse on cows was caught on camera.

The abuse was captured on video at two South Florida farms, Burnham Farm and Larson Farm, both in Okeechobee, Florida.

The images were so disturbing that Publix Super Markets stopped distributing and accepting products from those farms.

Southeast Milk is talking about the changes that need to be done to get off of its probationary status.

However, Okeechobee Sheriff Noel Stephen said that investigators took too long to bring him evidence.

It has been weeks since the videos were released, which showed dairy cows being abused, suffering in overheated barns, bring overworked, collapsing while milking and calves dying in the fields.

Southeast Milk Inc. (SMI) the dairy cooperative where the two farms are members, responded to the video.

“We really dropped the ball here,” said Jim Sleper, CEO of Southeast Milk. “What we really need to do is step up to the plate, learn from it, but more importantly, we need to move forward and gain that trust from our producers and momma cows and more importantly, the consumers of Florida.”

Burnham Farm and Larson Farm were investigated by the Animal Recovery Mission (ARM). An investigator went undercover for months to obtain the videos as evidence.

“What I saw in the videos, I was just dismayed. Did not understand what took place in them at all,” Sleper said.

Southeast Milk said that all of its members, including the two farms in question, will hold owner and management training to make sure they are teaching proper animal treatment protocol in December. SMI will also ask members to install surveillance cameras inside milking parlors.

“SMI is working with all of its member farms to introduce or strengthen video surveillance in order to help ensure animals are being treated respectfully and humanely in all hours of the day, at all locations of the farm,” Sleper said.

They said that if they have to employ a full-time third party auditor to go to all of their farms to make sure the animals are all properly cared for, then so be it. “It’s really my goal that I’m gonna take whole-heartedly, as well as my job,” Sleper said, “to ensure that we’re going to do anything and everything possible so it doesn’t happen.”

Richard Couto from Animal Recovery Mission explained on Nov. 17 how the cows were being treated. “The cows being beat in the face and in the private parts with metal buckle belts,” he said.

Couto spoke with 7News about the news from SMI. “Any change is a step forward,” he said. “I’m skeptical. Is this a song and dance being played by the dairy industry in the State of Florida to better their face after a very violent investigation was done in the dairy industry and some of their participating farms? Well, yeah, of course.”

The Okeechobee sheriff, who is investigating the animal cruelty claims, has charged several employees on the Larson Farm. There is no word if any employees from the Burnham Farm will face charges.

“Everybody knew about the criminal investigation before the entity that’s supposed to do the criminal investigation was notified,” Stephen said. “Bad guys knew we were looking for them before we knew who the bad guys were, so that makes it very difficult for us at best to bring them to justice where they need to be.”

ARM said the only reason they took so long was because they needed to gather evidence so they could build a solid case.

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