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Torment of dairy cows in undercover video leads to cruelty charges

Mercy for Animals

In an image taken from undercover video, workers at an Idaho dairy farm tie up a cow before dragging it out of the milking barn.

BOISE, Idaho -- Three workers fired from Idaho's largest dairy farm have been charged with misdemeanor animal cruelty after undercover video shot by an animal rights group showed workers stomping, dragging and beating cows inside a milking barn.

The video was shot using a hidden camera by a member of Mercy for Animals who got a job at Bettencourt Dairies' Dry Creek Dairy in Hansen for a few weeks last summer. 

It shows workers at the dairy:

  • Beating cows with a pink cane as the animals slipped and slid on the wet concrete floor;
  • Kicking, shoving and stomping cows that have fallen between the metal bars in the milking stalls;
  • Using a tractor to drag a cow, with a chain around her neck, out of a barn as she lies prone on the concrete floor. 

Misdemeanor animal cruelty charges were filed against Jesus Garza, Jose Acensio and Javier Victor Rojas-Loayza in late August after an investigation that was prompted by the video, said Twin Falls County Prosecutor Grant Loebs.

Acensio, a plant manager, and Rojas-Loayza are at large, Mercy for Animals said in a statement Wednesday, while Garza is to appear in court on Oct. 16.

If convicted, the men face fines of up to $5,000 each and six months of jail time on a first offense. 

Luis Bettencourt, the owner of the dairy, told The Associated Press that when the Idaho Department of Agriculture told him about the video and allegations, he was "sick about it." 

"We don't tolerate animal abuse. That's a big issue for us," Bettencourt said. "I love my animals and I've been in the dairy business since I was a kid. Animal care is a number one issue in our facilities."

Bettencourt said Idaho officials showed him the footage in August and he fired the five workers seen in the video the next day. He said that in the weeks since, he's installed video cameras throughout his facilities and hired another supervisor.

"And we also showed the video to all the rest of the employees in our dairies, all 500 employees, and they had to sign a deal that said they understand that there's zero tolerance for animal abuse in our dairies," he said. "We've been in business 30 years and we've never had this happen before. We're all devastated here."

Bettencourt's dairy operation has about 60,000 milk cows.

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Nathan Runkle, the executive director of Mercy for Animals, said those steps amount to "too little, too late."

The group also hopes the video will persuade companies to stop using products made from the Idaho company's milk and send a "clear message to the industry that animal abuse will not be tolerated."

Matt Rice, the group's investigations director, told NBC News that while it has had "meaningful discussions" with some food companies that get supplies from Bettencourt, Burger King and Kraft Foods have been resistant to implementing recommended changes. 

Runkle claimed that, "due to its complete lack of meaningful animal welfare standards, Burger King has allowed a culture of cruelty to fester at the factory farms supplying cheese for its burgers."

Burger King told NBC News "it does not tolerate or condone cruelty to animals" and is investigating the incident.

Dairy products from the facility where the video was made come to Burger King through third-party suppliers and amount to less than 1 percent of the company's supply, added company spokesman Bryson Thornton.

"We require that all suppliers and their vendors adhere to our vendor code of ethics," he said, noting that Burger King has been recognized by PETA and the Humane Society of the U.S. in recent years for its animal welfare efforts.

The Humane Society was quick to back up that support. 

"Burger King has been a leader in its field on animal welfare for more than a decade, and is doing more to improve farm animal welfare than any other major restaurant chain," Matthew Prescott, the group's food policy director, told NBC News. "The abuse shown on the video released today is reprehensible, by all accounts. We’re confident that Burger King will take this issue as seriously as it takes other animal welfare issues."

Kraft, for its part, said it voluntarily works with dairy suppliers to make sure they meet or exceed animal care guidelines. "Kraft has cared about the well-being of animals for years. We have high standards for our suppliers already in place," said spokeswoman Angela Wiggins.

Kraft plans to make its standards and communications with suppliers more transparent for consumers, and will post them on its website, Wiggins added. 

Meet some Missouri dairy cows that are living the good life. Chris Morrison reports.

Runkle said the cruelty isn't limited to the Idaho workers. "This is actually our fourth dairy industry investigation that we've done and every single one of those investigations has led to animal cruelty charges being filed," he said.

The organization wants major buyers to require suppliers to establish policies on the care and treatment of cattle, including:

  • Prohibiting animals from being dragged without a sled;
  • Prohibiting dairies from docking the tails of cattle or removing their horns after a certain age;
  • Requiring that the provide clean, dry housing areas and nonslip flooring in milking barns. 

Prosecutor Loebs said Bettencourt Dairies has cooperated fully and investigators don't believe any of its upper management knew about the mistreatment.

Pam Juker, spokeswoman for the Idaho Department of Agriculture, said the agency launched an investigation immediately after Mercy for Animals officials showed the department the video and other documentation.

The agency has never received any other animal welfare complaints involving Bettencourt, she said. 

"Obviously our first concern is the well-being of the animals," Juker added. "The images do not meet acceptable animal care or husbandry standards."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.