Fact-Checking Our Vermont Dairy Industry Discussion

Sep 25, 2017

Back in August, Vermont Edition had a discussion about whether Ben & Jerry's is fulfilling its social mission. We got a lot of feedback on that show, and a lot of it was critical specifically of some of the statements made by one of our guests, Will Allen.

Allen, the co-founder of Regeneration Vermont and critic of both of Ben & Jerry's and of the conventional dairy industry, was joined in our conversation by Rob Michalak, global director of social mission for Ben & Jerry's (you can listen to their original conversation, here.)

Sarah in Enosberg wrote:

...You really allowed Will Allen to spout inflammatory misinformation and opinions as facts. He was spouting his “alternative facts” as the true facts we ... rely on from public radio. You allowed him to create a tarnished ... image of the dairy industry.

And Dan in West Glover shared these thoughts:

[Will Allen] commented that there is an unbelievable amount of antibiotics in milk and that 1 percent of cows are annually dying of depression. Every farm's milk is tested for antibiotics every pick up and every tanker load [is] tested at the plant before it is unloaded. No milk with antibiotics EVER enters the food supply and the number of bulk tanks that test positive for antibiotics is vanishingly small. As far as cows dying of depression, this is a ridiculous notion. Cows can die of all sorts of things but I have never once see one die of depression.

There were several more emails criticizing Allen's statements, as well as some in support of his point of view.

In response to this, we contacted Allen for clarifications, and reached out to the Vermont Agriculture Agency to get more info on some of the issues raised.

Antibiotics in milk

During the show, Mr. Allen said that the antibiotic level in milk in Vermont is "incredibly high."

Here are some numbers from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture Food & Markets:

  • There were 2.738 billion lbs of milk produced in 2016.
  • Each tanker hauls about 55,000 lbs of milk.
  • That makes 49,782 tanker loads of milk produced in Vermont last year.
  • We had 16 tankers of milk test positive for antibiotics last year.
  • That means 0.00032 percent of the total tanker loads tested positive in Vermont last year.

Will Allen wrote us in response to our request for clarification, saying:

We filed a [Freedom Of Information Act] request for the antibiotic contaminated loads of milk dumped in Vermont since 2010. Levels of antibiotics in every load was especially high and all of that milk was dumped into the slurry ponds of two dairy farms. We are currently finishing our evaluation of the antibiotics. But, our early analysis is frightening and the state’s badly “regulated” disposal system is broken.

But it's important to note that what he's talking about is dumped milk, that never makes its way to consumers.

LISTEN: Is Ben & Jerry's Still On A (Social) Mission? Aug. 2, 2017

Depression in dairy cows

During the show, Will Allen also said, “1 percent of all dairy cows in this country die of depression.”

Alison Kosakowski, director of communication and policy at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, told us, "none of the three veterinarians on our staff have ever heard of a cow 'dying from depression,' in Vermont or elsewhere."

However, in his response to us, Will Allen pointed to data from the USDA's National Animal Health Monitoring System. The 2007 mortality information from the NAHMS does include a category called "lack of coordination or severe depression," and that category is listed as responsible for 1 percent of deaths.

Cabot farmer loss

Doug DiMento, director of corporate communications for Agri-Mark also contacted us, in response to a statement that Will Allen made that the Cabot cooperative was losing "about 10 percent of their farmers a month." Cabot merged with Agri-Mark in 1992.

DiMento wrote:

For the record: We were mentioned near the end of the show where Allen alleged we had 1,500 farms and are losing 10 percent of them a month. We will get him the correct facts, but so you know, our Board of Directors (comprised of 14 dairy farmers) closed our membership two years ago due to limited plant capacity to handle all member milk. We also have a waiting list of more than 100 farmer who want to join Agri-Mark if room becomes available.

Sarah in Enosburg, who we mentioned earlier, also said this in her email to us:

I have been an agriculture teacher for forty years and my husband has been a cattle Veterinarian for 36 years so we follow the industry closely... If you would like to spend a day doing a ride along with a cattle vet to see the world of conventional agriculture in northern Vermont my husband has offered that you could ride with him some day.

We ended up taking Sarah and her husband up on this offer. Jane rode along with Steve Wadsworth and visited four conventional dairy farms. Stay tuned for more from Jane's visit in late September.

LISTEN: Is Ben & Jerry's Still On A (Social) Mission? Aug. 2, 2017