May 6, 2019

Florida Producer Survives Undercover Video Attack

 |  By: Mike Opperman

Jacob Larson saw he’d missed a bunch of calls, but he finally had a chance to pick up this one. As he listened to the lady on the other end of the phone, he struggled to process what he was hearing. She said she was a reporter from a Palm Beach news station. She asked if Larson had any comment on the video that had just posted online. She said there was a press conference in two hours, and asked if he’d like to comment. He wondered what on earth she could be talking about.

She said she’d email him a link to the video. The 40 seconds it took for it to come through seemed like 40 hours. When he saw the video, the pit in his stomach grew to a bowling ball. 

Someone had shot an undercover video on his dairy. 

“I’ll always remember that day, Nov. 9, 2017,” Larson recalls. “We really didn’t have any warning. By the time she emailed it to me it was already online. Boy, it was rough. The initial reaction when I first saw it, I was just gut shot. I literally didn’t eat anything for 24 hours. I just wanted to throw up.”

Larson’s phone was blowing up with calls, and he couldn’t keep track of them all. There were so many that he couldn’t even get a call in to his office. When he finally made it through, they knew all about the video—they were swamped with calls as well. It got so bad Larson had to unplug the office phones. Some of the calls were press, most were harassment. 

“We understood people just wanted to vent,” Larson says. He tried to answer as many calls as possible. “Your initial instinct is to defend, because you feel like you’re under attack, and I was. I was under attack personally, my industry was under attack. So I wanted to defend.”

Problem was, some of the things that were shown in the video were undefendable. 

Larson family“Every member of our family and extended family was affected,” Larson says. “Unfortunately, the Larson name was severely tarnished. The activists were so good at their attack, even some people in the industry who knew us began to have some doubts.”

In the next few hours and days, media flooded the dairy. Members of the issues and crisis management team from the national checkoff -- Dairy Management Inc. – arrived in Okeechobee to assist the state checkoff organization, the Florida Dairy Farmers. All told, Larson estimates about a dozen reporters mostly from the Miami and Palm Beach markets visited his farm and office over a three-week period.

“It was very chaotic, just trying to get our jobs done,” Larson recalls. “The tension was building. This thing was so hot that people wanted to have something to run with, they wanted live video, they wanted to see if this thing was true.”

It was hard to know what to say, but representatives from Florida Dairy Farmers were there almost immediately to help with messaging. They provided Larson talking points to help him explain standard industry practices. The part Larson was more comfortable talking about was the practices specific to his farm that go on every day. 

“The Florida Dairy Farmers (FDF), boy they were spot on. The closer my relationship got with those folks the more I realized how personal it was to them,” Larson says. “Some of the trenches they went through for us was just above and beyond the call of duty.” The help was a team effort between FDF, DMI and representatives from National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF). 

Within the first 24 hours Larson terminated two employees. The video spurred a large criminal investigation, and as the sheriff’s department got involved and investigations continued, two more employees were fired within the next week. Two others resigned out of fear. 

“It was almost a cleanout of employees on that shift,” Larson says. “It kind of left us high and dry for employees to milk cows.”   
As the Larson’s were dealing with the aftermath of the video, the industry began to react as well.

“We at SMI became aware of the first video just hours prior to its releasing,” says Jim Sleper, CEO at Southeast Milk Inc. “Immediately we launched an internal investigation in conjunction with the FARM program (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management).”

SMI immediately connected with Larson, then reached out to customers. “We wanted to reassure our customers that we do not tolerate animal abuse and that we take this situation very seriously,” Sleper says. “We communicated with all of our customers about the commitments SMI made and how much we value their support and trust.” Sleper says that even now, more than a year after the incident, they continue to have ongoing discussions with customers about what happened in those videos.

Jacob LarsonSMI also contacted their other dairy producer members by email, letter, and personal conversations to keep them informed. 
Media and angry consumers made the connection between Larson and SMI, and calls flooded their corporate offices. Sleper says they worked with FDF, NMPF and other industry stakeholders to respond to media inquiries in a timely manner. 

The right communications are critical in the first few hours in a situation like this, and Sleper says SMI felt it necessary to take a major role in communications, strategy and decision-making. He says while it takes a team effort between different stakeholders, a cooperative can play a pivotal role with its link between other dairy producer members, customers and stakeholders such as FDF, NMPF and industry experts. 

Jamie Jonker, vice president of sustainability and scientific affairs at NMPF, was one of the first people SMI contacted when the news broke. 

“Within the National Dairy FARM program, we have what we call our Willful Mistreatment Protocol,” Jonker says. Unfortunately Jonker says they get allegations of mistreatment relatively often, so they have to go through a process to determine if the allegations are credible. In this instance, there was enough evidence to determine that the allegations of mistreatment were indeed credible. This triggered a third-party audit on the farm that indicated action items for improvements. 

What made this situation unique was that Larson Dairy was just one of four farms that were part of the activist target. The others were Davie, MacArthur and Burnham Dairies, all in the Okeechobee area. Having more than one dairy involved placed a cloud of concern over the entire Okeechobee milk shed, which forced the hand of milk buyers. For example, while SMI continued to take milk from Larson Dairy, Publix refused to take milk from the impacted dairies, including the family farms associated with each of the dairies. 

“This made for some very challenging opportunities for [SMI] in marketing milk from its members but also fulfilling its contractual obligations with its buyers,” Jonker says. As milk customers were becoming more concerned about the integrity of the production systems in Okeechobee, Jonker says SMI decided to host a series of meetings across their membership. 

Jonker and other members of the FARM team went on a road show, conducting workshops with dairy farmers starting in Louisiana, then Georgia and finally two meetings in Florida. While the meetings were being held in Florida, the activist group released two additional videos. The group actually watched the new video together without seeing it first.

“We talked about what we were seeing in the video,” Jonker says. “As we watched the videos over these final two meetings, you could just kind of feel the oxygen leaving the room. It was quite empowering for the farmers to collectively evaluate the video content to discuss what was and was not appropriate animal care practices.”

Like in most videos, he says they saw three things happening:

  1. Common industry practices that are done well that activists try to demonize. That could include things like confined housing, artificial insemination, removing calves from their mothers, and other practices. 
  2. Common industry practices that aren’t performed well. This could be actions like poorly administered euthanasia, improper udder singeing, disbudding animals at an older age and without pain remediation, and so forth.  
  3. Things you never want to see. 

Larson cows“By combining all three of these elements, it helps spread the narrative of the activists that our common practices are bad too,” Jonker says. 

Even if the dairies do all of the common practices well and enforce protocols, they aren’t completely safe from being targeted by an activist. 

“This sort of thing can happen to any dairy,” says Rick Lundquist, an independent nutrition consultant who works with Larson Dairy. “I’ve seen it happen to some of my best clients. You do everything right, but things just happen.”

As far as Larson was concerned, they were doing everything right. At employee meetings they went over how well the 2,200 cows on the dairy were doing. Milk production was good at around 80 pounds per cow, somatic cell counts were under 200,000. Reproduction was great. Cows seemed to be happy. 

“When the third-party veterinarians came to the audits, by the time they left they said, ‘These cows aren’t abused,’” Larson says. “I said, ‘Well, we don’t feel that way either, but you’re here for a reason.’ Obviously the video showed some things that were abusive and over done.”

Today, a number of practices help ensure everyone follows protocols. Each employee goes through the Dairy 365 training process, developed by Merck. They watch animal handling videos, then complete a test and certification process before they can work on the dairy. Employees go through three days of training on the specific job they are assigned to. Trainers are certified as well. 
Surveillance cameras installed in all areas of the dairy serve as a watchful eye to make sure everyone follows protocols. They’ve also made improvements to the parlor to improve the function of the stall gates. And there are no sticks or prods anywhere near the parlor that could be used to encourage cows to move faster. 

Being FARM certified, Larson says he gets regular visits from the SMI field representative to make sure record-keeping and training is up to date. 

Even with all of the training and certifications, Larson doesn’t feel like anyone is immune to the sort of attack he and other south Florida producers went through. Increasing the level of surveillance, with more training and creating a rapport with employees, Larson says “we just can’t do enough of that.”

Even through all of the anguish Larson went through, he says they’ll be better for it. “Our relationships with our customers are stronger. Our family continues to thank the consumers of South Florida for supporting us and continuing to choose local milk for their families,” he says. “I think that we’re going to be better as an industry. It’s just unfortunate that an attack like this from any type of activist group had to happen. But at the same time, it’s going to make us better in the long run.” 

Not all activist events can be avoided, but there are steps you can take to protect yourself . Find several resources below:

Avoid Becoming A Victim Of An Undercover Activist Video

A Contingency Plan Can Guide You Through A Crisis

Nine Steps For Managing A Crisis