An eight-week undercover investigation by animal-rights group Strategies for Ethical and Environmental Development (SEED) has revealed fraudulent practice in dairy industry auctions: the removal and replacement of cows’ ID tags. This illegal practice essentially erases the cows’ histories in order to increase profits by mislabeling the cows as “organic.” The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) animal disease traceability system mandates identification tags be applied to cows traveling interstate and not be removed. This is because when populations of animals from across the country are mixed together, as they are in live-animal auctions, it is important to be able to track contagions by knowing each animal’s disease, travel, and ownership history. In addition to committing fraud and misleading consumers, the removal of cows’ ID tags poses a severe threat to human health, as the diseases traced by the tags could potentially be the cause of another zoonotic or food-borne illness outbreak. In the past, cows have been linked to outbreaks of anthrax, mad cow disease, and tuberculosis. At auction sites, sick, injured, and dying cows are kept with healthy animals, creating conditions where diseases spread rapidly. 

The SEED investigation took place at Erath County Dairy Sales in Dublin, TX, an establishment that buys cows from dairy farms across the country and sells them to the meat industry. At the auction, the investigator witnessed systemic cruelty and animal abuse—including kicking and shocking “downed” cows with electric prods—in addition to the criminal activity that directly impacts the safety of the country’s food system. 

“The fraudulent activity and the potential food safety consequences at the center of this case are just two of the harms imposed on animals and people by industrial animal agriculture. As consumers, we cannot isolate ourselves from the impacts of a food system dominated by cruelty,” Cailen LaBarge, co-founder of SEED, said. “When we treat animals as mere production machines to be abused and thrown away, just as when we exploit farm and slaughterhouse workers, or allow companies to freely pollute without considering the effects upon our shared environment, we eventually bring harm upon ourselves. The dairy and meat industries cannot be uncoupled; we must reject them both if we want a healthy, sustainable, and equitable future. We need to understand that we’re being fed a lie.”

Following the investigation, SEED reported the Criminal Cruelty to Livestock Animals violations, Animal Disease Traceability program violations, and Packers & Stockyards Act violations to the USDA.