believe in better [animal welfare]™

As a colleague and I wrote back in 2015,

“Believe in better.” Better nutrition. Better health. Better taste. Better farming practices. Better land use. Better cow care. Better milk. Coca-Cola’s new dairy product, Fairlife, brings with it these great promises, hoping to fill a perceived void in a market of consumers increasingly interested in healthy food, animal welfare, and environmental sustainability. But, is this claim of “better” the most appropriate metric for judging this novel product, or does it unintentionally continue to drive the problematic notion that companies and their technologies are increasingly defining our identity for us?

While we were largely responding to the criticism Fairlife had attracted for its advertising concept, which featured sexualized, infantilized women in the style of “pin-up girls” — presumably with this new milk products to thank for their look — this notion of believing in “better” can conveniently be extended to the current controversy Fairlife finds itself amidst: Allegations of serious, systemic animal abuse on what is one of the largest dairies in the United States.

Last week, the Animal Recovery Mission (ARM) released the following, incredibly disturbing footage:

I’m probably going to get some pushback for linking to the film; I contemplated for quite some time whether not to include the original footage, in essence amplifying its message. On one hand, I consume dairy products, avidly support my local dairy farmers, and expected dairy science to be my career path through much of my time as an undergraduate at Cornell. This film makes the dairy industry look terrible and it’s really easy to want to hide it because it “misinforms” and “misrepresents” the hardworking farmers who do in fact condemn animal abuse.

It’s so simple, though! As I’ve convinced myself forever: Most dairy farmers don’t treat their animals like this. Dairy cows that are stressed produce less milk (it’s biology!) so of course it’s in all farmers’ best interests to treat them with the utmost respect. There’s some really cool work going on in cow comfort and agricultural engineering, but this doesn’t erase some fundamental philosophical and ethical problems with the use of animals for consumption. 

On the other hand, I literally just finished teaching an undergraduate writing seminar on food and film — “Food-Flix & Chill” — where we developed skills to consume media about food, which is often highly political and always framed based on the producer’s objectives. Discourses around food comprise many voices and dimensions, and farmers don’t have a monopoly on telling stories about the work that occurs on their farms. It’s important to consider this film within that context.

A common industry critique of ARM’s efforts is to outright denunciate animal rights activism and the unnecessary peril it causes to stressed, financially burdened farmers. Numerous posts I’ve seen on Facebook and Twitter condemn ARM’s strategic choice to collect footage over a long period of time and prepare to release it during “June Dairy Month” as a distraction. Some of these extreme tactics were certainly problematic, and if in fact the activists themselves participated in (or didn’t stop) the abuse they should also be held responsible. It’s a good first step that Fair Oaks Farms and the visionaries of Fairlife are taking responsibility for the grotesque behavior of some of their (former) employees:

But to others in the dairy industry: We must understand that those responding with rage and demanding change — even by threatening to change their own consumption behavior — see this as the only mechanism for forcing change from the outside. By simply hostilely critiquing extreme activists instead of honestly reflecting on the serious problems in the industry these types of efforts seek to uncover — and very occasionally does find — is not a good look. Yes, it’s easier to tell a scary story about agriculture than a positive one (and thus it’s easy to get defensive), but we should more humbly ask ourselves why that is.

Instead of being simply an advertisement and education campaign for the dairy industry, I wish we could use the second half of it to have a real conversation between both producers and consumers about what “Better” could and should look like.


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