Major United States dairy producers will pay $52 million to settle an antitrust class-action lawsuit accusing them of slaughtering more than 500,000 cows to reduce milk supply and inflate prices.
“This cow-killing program exploited both the animals and the consumers, and resulted in the early deaths of half a million cows,” attorney Cheryl Leahy told The Huffington Post in an email. Leahy is general counsel for Compassion Over Killing, an animal protection group that spearheaded the suit.
The settlement means that anyone who purchased dairy products in one of several states between 2003 to the present could be entitled to a cash payout. (Details are here.)
Class action firm Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP filed the suit in 2011 on behalf of dairy consumers, against dairy lobbying group National Milk Producers Federation and industry cooperatives Dairy Farmers of America, Land O’ Lakes, DairyLea Cooperative and Agrimark.
The suit states that Cooperatives Working Together, a trade group led by the NMPF, oversaw a “herd retirement program” between 2003 and 2010. That “retirement” program consisted of dairy cooperatives buying out entire herds of cattle — primarily from small farms — and sending them for early slaughter. (“Spent” dairy cows are typically slaughtered for cheap ground beef, Leahy said, though she couldn’t speak to the fate of each cow in this program.)
This limited the supply of raw milk, thus driving up prices for products like yogurt, cream and cottage cheese, according to the suit.
“Cooperatives Working Together actually had information about its so-called ‘dairy herd retirement,’ program on its own website, along with economic analysis … showing how much the industry profited from the program,” Leahy said. “We took that information and analyzed the applicable law.”
At least some of that data is still online. A 2009 analysis by Scott Brown of the University of Missouri-Columbia found that between 2004 and 2008, herd retirement added an average $0.59 per 100 pounds of milk. Brown did not immediately reply to a request for comment from HuffPost.
But CWT claims that the program was not about prices. The group’s website until recently included a “frequently asked questions” section about the program, which it characterizes as a “voluntary self-help farmer-funded program that allowed dairy farmers who wanted to stop farming, to exit farming altogether.”
Jim Mulhern, NMPF president and CEO, called the settlement “the most sensible and responsible course of action” in a statement, while noting that the defendants were not found guilty of violating any laws.
“It is important to note that the court has found no antitrust violation and CWT makes no admission of wrongdoing in this settlement,” he said. The group declined to comment beyond the prepared statement.
That said, Leahy is still counting the decision as a victory.
“This settlement sends a message to the dairy industry that they cannot harm people and animals out of simple greed without any accountability,” she said. “They are not above the law.”
This article has been updated to reflect that CWT has removed its “frequently asked questions” page from its website.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that consumers in certain states who purchased dairy products from 2003 to the present ― not just until 2011 ― may be entitled to a payout.