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After the animal abuse video went viral

What’s it like for a Canadian farmer at the centre of an international animal rights media frenzy?

A year and a half later, Jeff Kooyman is still disturbed by a video produced on his farm, Chilliwack Cattle Sales, by the advocacy group Mercy for Animals. Broadcast during prime time on CTV national news on June 2014, the video let the whole world see young workers shouting “f***ing bitch” at cows, kicking one cow on the head while she was laying on the floor, beating the backs of others with a stick, and hanging one from a chain attached to a tractor bucket.

The video instantly went viral on Facebook and Twitter, and a tsunami of insulting letters and email flowed from Canada and all around the globe to the family farm’s administration office, including death threats.

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Chilliwack is a regional agricultural centre nestled in the fertile Fraser Valley, and it proudly asserts on its website that it is home to B.C.’s biggest dairy farm, the Kooyman operation known by its initials CCS.

Suddenly, however, Chilliwack became the  “town where cows are murdered.” More than 100,000 angry consumers signed the Mercy For Animals online petition. They also threatened to boycott Saputo products, since the Montreal-based company is Canada’s largest dairy processor, and its largest supplier is CCS.

Milking 3,000 cows, CCS accounts for nearly five per cent of B.C. dairy output.

In other words, a black eye for the Kooyman farm can damage the public image of the entire industry.

At the CCS farm office, however, an earnest Jeff Kooyman maintains that his cows benefit from effective, humane care, and that the four-minute video “does not reflect the reality.”

A black eye for the dairy industry

Kooyman knows he is at the centre of media furor that has slammed a dairy industry that accounts for $19 billion of Canada’s GDP. It’s not a feeling you’d want to experience, especially when you reflect that what is happening on your farm could be impacting 12,000 other dairy farmers across the country.

Kooyman manages CCS with his seven brothers, and they have transformed the little family farm from 60 cows in the 1960s into a huge, California-style facility. The farm’s rotary parlour works round the clock to milk 3,000 cows, with 70 employees on the payroll.

The eight employees filmed on the video were working during the night shift, and they were all immediately fired.

Without excusing their behaviour, Kooyman describes them “as good working kids from the town who made youthful errors.” However, they still face criminal charges.

“We still don’t understand why these employees have not been judged for their misconduct,” says Geoffrey Urton, senior manager of stakeholder relations for the B.C. Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals who has handled the CCS case.

Although CCS is still under investigation, and although their lawyer has advised against it, Jeff Kooyman agreed to our interview, accompanied by Diana Barchard, the farm’s chief financial officer.

It becomes clear he wants to give his version of the story after being crushed by the national and international press and the worldwide social media machine.

In the hours following the release of the video, a brigade of independent experts and veterinarians invaded CCS, and the BC Milk Marketing Board (BCMMB) refused to market the farm’s milk during the time needed to evaluate the situation.

More than 35,000 litres — enough milk to have supplied 140,000 school kids — had to be dumped into sewage lines.

The milk board returns

Under tremendous pressure from Mercy for Animals’ petition, Saputo still refuses to process CCS milk, even though BCMMB gives it a green light. “After checking that CCS milk was produced accordingly to the Code for Practices and Handling of Dairy Cattle, we had no choice but to redirect the milk refused by Saputo,” says Vicky Crites, manager of policy and communications at BCMMB.

The CCS milk was then redirected to a biodigestor located in Washington state at cost of $200,000, paid by all B.C. producers.

Since September 2014, three months after the video, the code has been mandatory for B.C. producers. Created in 2009 by the National Farm Animal Care Council, the code protects the well-being of cows across the country.

British Columbia has appointed the milk marketing board to ensure the code’s best practices are followed by the province’s 500 producers. (So far, the board has contracted six independent inspectors to conduct these inspections and 40 farms have been inspected through a random process. All have been found to comply with the code. The board also says a total of five inspections, two unannounced, have been made at CCS. The farm passed them all.)

“The code is about animal welfare and not animal cruelty, but if our inspectors find out that cows are distressed because they lack water or feed, we can immediately suspend milk collection and revoke the farm’s licence to produce,” explains Crites. She adds also that an agreement has been reached between the board and the industry under which none of the 39 provincially licensed milk processors can refuse a producer’s milk if the farm meets the code of good practices.

“This agreement will prevent another Saputo-CCS situation,” Crites says.

The lessons learned

Since the scandal, CCS has appointed a director of human resources. Employees go through three days of mandatory training on animal care and handling, and they all work not only under appointed supervisors, but also under the eyes of various surveillance cameras installed in the farm buildings.

“We can monitor what is going on 24 hours by looking at our cellphones,” says Kooyman.

Some animal practices and care have also been changed. A down cow stuck in the milking rotary is no longer moved with a chain attached to the tractor bucket, although that practice was approved by their veterinarian. It now takes seven men armed with straps to remove a 600-kg animal from the area.

“It’s time consuming,” agrees Kooyman.

Apart from having an animal density that is a little above normal, the only criticism from experts visiting CCS came from a Californian veterinarian. “He said that our cows were too thin, but it is the way we like them,” says Kooyman, who points out that a CCS cow, Apple 3, was crowned International Red & White Show Grand Champion at the World Dairy Expo held in Madison, Wisconsin in 2013.

More has to be done

Although the code gives good recommendation on practices such as dehorning calves, “Canadian producers will have to do much more to eliminate lameness problems within their herds. It is their main challenge,” warns Anne-Marie De Passillé, animal welfare expert and professor at the University of British Columbia, based in Agassiz.

Her observation comes from a study she and her colleagues did on 110 farms all over the country. The code sets a target of a lameness rate under 10 per cent. However, her research team found that fewer than a quarter of the freestall barns they studied actually met that goal.

Jeff Kooyman admits that some lameness problems exist in his herd, although at a far lower rate than the video shows. “Our veterinarian and our hoof trimmer are here once or twice a week, and I can assure you that our lameness rate is less than five (per cent),” Kooyman says.

The CCS video was filmed by an employee who worked one month at the giant B.C. farm in May 2014. In reality, this employee worked as “an undercover investigator” for Mercy For Animals (MFA), says Krista Osborne, Canadian director for the organization since January 2015.

Chilliwack is the group’s eighth covert investigation in Canada, Osborne says. In addition to exposing animal cruelty, the Hollywood, California-based organization also promotes vegetarian and vegan diets to consumers.

Should they sue?

Does the Kooyman family intend to sue their spy employee for damaging their farm’s reputation?

It is happening in some U.S. states where it is possible for business owners to sue an employee who has sought employment under false pretences. But this family wants to turn the page on this painful chapter, CFO Diana Barchard says during our interview.

To a degree, it will be a while before the hard feelings are completely forgotten.

Kooyman says that he has been deeply hurt by the first reaction of BC Milk Marketing Board and then by Saputo “which has bowed to MFA lobby.”

Still, Kooyman thinks that the Canadian dairy industry should present a united front on the animal cruelty issue instead of splitting processors against producers.

“What happened to us,” Kooyman says, “could happen to any dairy farmer.”

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