Idaho dairy workers charged with animal cruelty

REBECCA BOONE, Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho -- Three former dairy workers with Idaho's largest dairy operation 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 this summer.

It shows workers at the dairy beating cows with a pink cane as the animals slipped and slid on the wet concrete floor; workers kicking and stomping cows that have fallen between the metal bars in the milking stalls; and a cow being dragged out of the barn by a chain around her neck as she lies on the concrete floor.

Twin Falls County Prosecutor Grant Loebs said he filed misdemeanor animal cruelty charges against Jesus Garza, Jose Acensio and Javier Victor Rojas Loayza in late August after an investigation that was prompted by the video. 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, said that when the Idaho Department of Agriculture told him about the video and allegations, he was "sick about it." Bettencourt's dairy operation is the largest in Idaho, with 13 facilities and about 60,000 milk cows.

"We don't tolerate animal abuse. That's a big issue for us," Bettencourt said. "Animal care is a No. 1 issue in our facilities."

Bettencourt said he fired the five workers seen in the video the day after he viewed the footage. He's since installed video cameras throughout his facilities and hired an additional 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."

Nathan Runkle, the executive director of Mercy for Animals, hopes the video will convince Kraft Foods, Burger King and other companies to stop using products made from milk from the Idaho company and send a "clear message to the industry that animal abuse will not be tolerated."

Neither Kraft nor Burger King has a direct relationship with Bettencourt Dairies. Kraft works with a cheese processing company in Idaho that uses milk from Bettencourt's facilities, and Burger King officials said the dairy is an indirect supplier of a small percentage of cheese used by the restaurant chain.

"We believe this abuse is ongoing and was allowed to flourish, unchecked, until Mercy for Animal sent a hidden camera in," Runkle said.

The organization wants Kraft and Burger King to require suppliers to adhere to its policies on the care and treatment of cattle.

Angela Wiggins, a spokeswoman for Kraft, said the company works voluntarily with dairy suppliers to make sure they meet or exceed animal care guidelines.

The video was upsetting, and Kraft doesn't condone the abusive behaviors, she said.

Burger King spokesman Bryson W. Thornton said his company doesn't tolerate or condone cruelty to animals and has launched an investigation that will result in "swift action" if there is evidence of systemic violations to Burger King's animal welfare policies.

Loebs, the prosecutor, said Bettencourt Dairies has cooperated fully with law enforcement, and investigators don't believe any of the dairy's upper management knew about the mistreatment.

Pam Juker, spokeswoman for the Idaho Department of Agriculture, said the agency has not received any other animal welfare complaints involving Bettencourt dairies.


Associated Press reporters Tammy Webber in Chicago and Suzette Laboy in Miami contributed to this report.