When people find out that I'm an animal rights activist and a vegan, they invariably have questions. "Are your shoes leather?" they often ask. (Answer: "No.") "Do you miss meat?" ("Not a bit.") And, usually, "What's wrong with eating dairy foods? Cows aren't killed to make milk."
I hope that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals' (PETA) new undercover investigation will put this last question to rest once and for all. Milk and cheese might seem harmless, but the dairy industry is responsible for often shocking cruelty to animals.
From birth to death, animals on today's factory farms are treated like nothing more than machines. Cows are no exception. Farmed cows are artificially impregnated year after year to force their bodies to produce milk. Their calves are taken from them shortly after birth--sometimes literally dragged away by a chain wrapped around one leg. The traumatized mothers bellow for hours--sometimes days--searching for their newborns.
Cows have a natural life span of about 25 years, but the disease, lameness and reproductive problems rampant in the dairy industry render cows "useless" by the time they are 4 or 5 years old. They are then turned into soup, dog food or low-grade hamburger meat. Their bodies are too "spent" to be used for anything else.
PETA launched an undercover investigation of one such farm, a Pennsylvania facility that supplies milk to Fortune 250 company Land O'Lakes--the largest seller of name-brand butter in the U.S.--after we were contacted by a whistleblower earlier this year.
Our investigator documented deplorable conditions and routine neglect and abuse. Cows who had trouble standing and walking were kicked, electro-shocked or jabbed with a blade. After she was shocked with a high-voltage electric prod, one cow struggled and skidded on her knees, then hobbled in obvious pain through a slurry of manure and filth. She was hauled off to slaughter two days later.
One cow's gangrenous, infected teat ruptured as she was milked by a machine. Workers were told to tightly wrap the teat with an elastic band in order to "amputate" it. The cow's condition deteriorated over the next 11 days before she finally died.
Another cow collapsed in a deep pool of liquid manure. She struggled and flailed but could not get up. The cow was left to languish there for at least five hours as the pool of urine and manure covered her body and coated her eyes, nose and mouth.
Cows and calves were kept in pens and barns whose floors were filled with deep excrement, which caused foot and hoof problems and fostered disease. One steer was nearly blind, his eyes scarred from untreated pinkeye. Calves rescued from the facility had pneumonia, "manure scald," ringworm and parasites. Abscesses were common. As PETA's video shows, some of them burst and oozed pus even as cows were being milked.
Land O'Lakes "inspected" the Pennsylvania farm as recently as June 2009 and merely noted that there were areas--including the milking parlor walls--in need of cleaning; it approved the facility nonetheless.
As a result of PETA's investigation, the farm's owner and his son have been charged with cruelty to animals. PETA is also calling on Land O'Lakes to implement and enforce a 12-point animal welfare plan that would eliminate some of the worst abuses to cows raised for their milk.
But it won't eliminate all of them. As long as consumers continue to buy milk, butter, cheese and ice cream (even though supermarkets are full of delicious alternatives), animals will continue to suffer. Mother cows will continue to watch helplessly as their calves are taken from them again and again. They will continue to go lame from intense confinement amid waste and suffer from mastitis, an extremely painful udder infection caused by drugs and overmilking. And they will continue to be trucked to slaughter and ground up for burgers when their worn-out bodies are no longer of any use to farmers.
And that's what's wrong with dairy foods.
Dan Paden is a senior research associate in People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals' Cruelty Investigations Department, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; http://www.PETA.org.