More arrests expected in Okeechobee dairy farm abuse cases

Two additional arrests in relation to undercover video of alleged animal abuse are expected by the end of the week, WINK News has learned.

So far, the Okeechobee County sheriff arrested four workers at dairy farms caught on video shot by the group Animal Recovery Mission, known as ARM.

Sheriff Noel Stephen said more arrests could have been made had ARM not chosen to release some video to the media prior to turning it over to his agency for evidence in November 2017.

“These individuals saw their faces on social media … they fled the county, the state of Florida if not the United States in order to escape prosecution before my agency ever saw the video,” said Stephen.

An attorney for ARM, disputed that timeline, and stated the group had been in conversation with Stephen’s office prior to releasing video to the media.

WINK News obtained the Okeechobee Sheriff’s Office major crime detective’s timeline of events which supports Sheriff Stephen’s claim.

“We spent several months, getting death threats… People judging my men and women and the citizens of my county, based on what ARM’s information was that was getting out (and) the appearance that they were reflecting that we weren’t doing our job and doing a just investigation,” said Sheriff Stephen.

A detective spent months going through hours of video provided by the activist group to determine where crimes occurred.

Some of what was captured on camera was not animal abuse, but industry standard dairy practices, according to that detective.

For instance, flaming of cows utters is used to prevent a disease and the Sheriff’s office claimed it is not painful to the cows.

“If the industry says that’s the standard, you probably need to go to the industry to question that not law enforcement and say that it’s a crime,” said Sheriff Stephen.

At the end of the ARM videos regarding the Okeechobee dairy farms there is a plea for people to adopt a plant-based diet to put an end to the practices.

Jason Pizzo, the attorney for ARM and a candidate for Florida Senate, said that without animal rights advocates people may not see what is going on inside the food industry. “I do think it serves the public better to see these things to make a determination,” he said.

The Okeechobee County Sherriff’s Office did not find evidence that any of the dairy farm owners had knowledge of animal abuse captured by ARM’s undercover video.

Jim Sleper, CEO of Southeast Milk, Inc, the cooperative that oversees all four Okeechobee diaries released the following statement:

Animal care remains a top priority for Florida’s dairy farmers. Southeast Milk, Inc. (SMI), which represents many of Florida’s dairy farms, has put in place several additional measures to assure that farmers maximize every available tool and seek out new resources to keep their cows healthy and safe.

Every SMI member farm has adopted the National Dairy FARM Program’s newest iteration, Version 3.0, which requires documented training of workers on animal care throughout every stage of a cow’s life, stricter requirements for working with veterinarians, and mandatory corrective action for farms not meeting the standards.

In addition, each of the four farms involved has implemented and/or strengthened its video surveillance systems. Video monitoring is an effective tool that helps ensure workers and animals are safe and secure, and that fundamental animal care procedures are being adhered to by each and every employee.

Reporter:Lauren Sweeney
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