Fairlife hit with two proposed class action lawsuits alleging fraud in wake of animal abuse allegations

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Picture: Fairlife
Picture: Fairlife

Related tags fairlife

Chicago-based high-protein milk brand Fairlife has been hit with two proposed class action lawsuits alleging deceptive marketing practices following the release of a video showing animal abuse at Fair Oaks Farms in northwest Indiana, which used to supply some of its milk.

The cases were filed after non-profit animal welfare group Animal Recovery Mission released videos​ from an undercover investigation of Fair Oaks Farms showing animals being mistreated, which prompted Fairlife​ to suspend deliveries from the farm and step up audits at all of its other milk suppliers. Several retailers have also removed Fairlife from shelves.

The first complaint,* filed on June 11 in the Northern District of Illinois by plaintiff Alain Michael, names Coca-Cola-backed Fairlife LLC and the company's co-founders Mike and Sue McCloskey (also owners of Fair Oaks Farms) as defendants, and accuses them of engaging in fraud, unjust enrichment, and violating state consumer protection laws.

The ‘promise’ made by the McCloskeys on pack highlighting their animal welfare credentials was “a sham​,” added the lawsuit.

As a matter of routine and practice, Fairlife’s cows are tortured, kicked, stomped on, body slammed, stabbed with steel rebar, thrown off the side of trucks, dragged through the dirt by their ears, and left to die in over 100-degree heat​,” alleged the lawsuit, which noted that Fairlife COO Tim Doelman had confirmed in a public statement that Fairlife conducted "only one purportedly unannounced audit per year of its dairy farms."

The lawsuit added: “Calves that do not survive the torture are dumped in mass graves. To add insult to injury, the abuse is rampant even at Fairlife’s ‘flagship farm in Indiana’ that customers are urged to visit on the Products’ labels.”

The second complaint,** filed on June 12 in the Northern District of Illinois by plaintiffs Andrew Schwartz and Alice Vitiello, makes similar allegations.

fairlife red pack

Fairlife milk is made via a filtration process that separates milk into water, fat, protein, vitamins & minerals, and lactose (milk sugar) and then recombines them in different proportions to produce lactose-free milk with 50% more protein, 30% more calcium and 50% less sugar than regular milk.

Founded by Indiana dairy farmers Mike and Sue McCloskey in 2012 as a joint venture between The Coca-Cola Company and Select Milk Producers (a co-op of 99 family-owned farms that was started by the McCloskeys in 1994), fairlife rolled out nationally in the US in December 2014. 

The brand recently announced plans​ to build a $200m, 300,000-square-foot facility near Phoenix, Arizona that's slated to be operational in the second half of 2020. It is also investing $85m in a new production facility in Peterborough, Ontario, also due to start operations in 2020.

Fairlife ‘devastated’ by footage

About a dozen retailers have pulled Fairlife from their shelves, including Jewel-Osco, Tony’s Fresh Market and Pete’s Fresh Market, while the Newton County Sheriff’s Office has also announced charges​ against three workers identified in the video as participating in the abuse, but not against Fair Oaks Farms directly.

fairlife promise

In an email to FoodNavigator-USA, Fairlife said: “We are aware of the lawsuits and are reviewing them. fairlife is committed to the humane and compassionate care of animals. As we shared last week, we are taking immediate actions to ensure our high standards of animal welfare are being executed at each of our supplying farms.

The company added that it was “devastated​” by the footage and had immediately suspended deliveries from Fair Oaks Farms, which it claimed supplied less than 5% of its milk.

Fairlife: ‘We’ve also received support from many retailers’

It is auditing all 30 of its supplying farms in the next 30 days and will require that all employees be recertified in animal welfare training annually. It also said it would increase the number of unannounced animal welfare audits at its supplying dairies from one to 24 per year.

“In addition to the immediate actions we have taken, we are actively working on a comprehensive update to our animal welfare and quality assurance program. We know we can play an important role in improving animal welfare across the dairy industry and are committed to putting enhanced practices and procedures in place to ensure this doesn’t happen at our dairy suppliers.” 

Asked about how the incident had impacted Fairlife’s business, the spokesperson said: “A small variety of retailers have communicated their plans to remove our products until the situation is resolved but we’ve also received support from many retailers who have chosen to keep our products on shelves.”

Coca-Cola conducting independent investigations

Coca-Cola released a statement saying that it is conducting “ independent investigations of all fairlife’s dairy suppliers to ensure they uphold the highest standards of animal welfare. This is in addition to the audits by fairlife that will begin this week.”

Mike McCloskey: Our 'see something, say something,' policy worked

Mike McCloskey, a veterinarian-turned-farmer, said he was "disgusted by and take full responsibility for the actions seen in the footage, as it goes against everything that we stand for in regards to responsible cow care and comfort."

He added that three of the four abusive employees shown in the video had already been terminated months ago after being identified by co-workers as abusive to animals and reported to management. The fourth has since been terminated.  

  • fairlife has already discontinued the use of milk from Fair Oaks Farms.
  • We committed to you that we would visit and audit all 30 of our supplying farms in 30 days. These audits are already underway and will be completed by July 6, 2019.
  • We committed to increase the frequency of our supplying farm audits to 24 per year, all of which will be unannounced.
  • We have enlisted an independent industry-leading auditor to partner with us on this ongoing program.
  • We committed to requiring all supplying farms’ employees be re-certified in animal welfare training on an annual basis.
  • We are in the process of notifying all supplying farms that all of their employees will need to complete a mandatory animal welfare training program and be re-certified on an annual basis.
  • We committed to holding our supplying farms to the highest enforcement standards of our zero-tolerance policy on animal abuse.
  • We are requiring all supplying farms to sign updated contracts agreeing that they will terminate any employees caught abusing an animal and, if applicable, cooperate with investigations by law enforcement.

Mike Saint John CEO, fairlife

*Alain Michael et al v Fairlife LLC, Mike Mccloskey and Sue Mccloskey​ 1:19-cv-03924 filed June 11, 2019. The plaintiff is represented by McMorrow Law, P.C and Bursor & Fisher, P.A

**Andrew Schwartz and Alice Vitiello et al v Fairlife LLC​ 1:19-cv-03929 filed June 12, 2019. The plaintiffs are represented by Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz LLP

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Tip of the Iceberg

Posted by Chris,

Retailers disgracefully only pay lip-service towards animal welfare and in many countries do not indicate on the packaged meat if the animal was humanely slaughtered - or ritually shamefully slaughtered. The whole industry is protected by ag-gags and cover ups, sponsored or protected by unworthy congressmen/politicians looking after their own positions. We need truly enforceable legislation to ensure any animal abuse results in extensive jail time for the perpetrators and their employers - whether that costs the industry more or not. This case needs to be the first of many - too many lies and outright deceit - to sell product

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Posted by Robin,

I would like to participate in the fairlife class action. When I first read the label I switched from 96oz Lactaid at a price of around 4.99 to 52oz fairlife at 3.99 because of the carton information “PROMISING EXTRAORDINARY CARE AND COMFORT FOR OUR COWS”. It is rare for me not to try to save a buck. I believed that statement among other statements and felt good about drinking the milk because of Animal Welfare which would also produce a healthier product. I have been drinking more milk for a few years now since trying fairlife, and have had up to 6 cartons at a time in my fridge. I have my Aunt drinking fairlife. How can the owners justify this atrocity? Those carton statements never should have been made without taking 100% responsibility. I can’t finish my two plastic cartons of fairlife and will find it difficult to trust any label. I have many receipts and I am sure my local grocery has a record of my purchases. I only hope my local grocery will pull fairlife from its shelves as the other local grocery store did that shared this devastating information with me today. I hope any proceeds go toward the protection of animals.

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